THE FEDERAL direct-payment program for farmers has little to recommend it — almost nothing, actually. Each year, in the name of securing a stable food supply, it distributes roughly $5 billion to commodity producers who are, by and large, better off than the average American, whose tax dollars underwrite the aid. The new five-yearfarm bill being debated in the Senate does away with direct payments, and we say good riddance.
However, the direct-payment program did have one redeeming feature. Under current law, the Agriculture Department has to make public the names of all the program’s beneficiaries, and the amount of federal largess each receives. At least the taxpayers could know exactly where their money was going. A Washington-based nonprofit organization, the Environmental Working Group, has assembled a farm-subsidy database documenting the cash flow in detail, which citizens have searched more than 350 million times since 2004.
Alas, the elimination of direct payments is not an unmixed blessing for taxpayers. The proposed farm bill before the Senate replaces direct payments with an enhanced system of subsidized crop insurance. The system would cost a projected $3 billion in addition to the federal crop insurance subsidy under existing law, which costs $9 billion per year. The $3 billion figure could rise significantly if commodity prices go down in the next couple of years.
It won’t be easy to fix this overly generous program, which encourages overplanting and showers benefits on large, well-heeled farms to the detriment of their smaller competitors. The Senate leadership, Republican and Democrat, agreed to let only a limited number of amendments to reach the floor. Only one, sponsored by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), trims crop insurance, albeit modestly: It would reduce the crop insurance premium subsidy by 15 percent for farmers with an adjusted gross income greater than $750,000 per year.
Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) wanted to offer another amendment that would have required the Agriculture Department to disclose the names of crop insurance subsidy recipients, and the amounts they received — as has been done heretofore with direct payments. “The days of secret giveaways need to end,” Mr. Begich declared, sensibly enough.
But if there’s anything the farm lobby dislikes more than losing its subsidies, it’s letting the public follow its money. Senate leaders barred consideration of the Begich-McCain amendment, which means there won’t even be a floor debate on increasing transparency in farm programs over the next five years. It’s not an auspicious start.