THE HOUSE has finally passed a farm bill, and we’ll start our discussion by listing the legislation’s good points. It won’t take long.
The bill ends the wasteful direct-payment programs that showered $5 billion per year on commodity producers without regard to need. It abolishes permanent agriculture laws dating back to the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, thus eliminating the twice-a-decade threat of chaotic price increases that farm lobbyists used to extract new subsidies. And, for the first time in many years, representatives passed agriculture-support programs separately from food stamps, ending the old log-rolling arrangement between urban and rural delegations that insulated both programs from scrutiny on the merits.
Other than that, the bill’s a perfect disgrace. Each of the above-mentioned pluses is more than offset by a corresponding defect. Yes, direct payments would end, but they’d be replaced with a 10-year, $9 billion increase in crop insurance programs that would protect farms against not only natural disasters but also inconvenient market movements — at a time when U.S. agriculture is enjoying record profits. The irrational New Deal-Fair Deal-era default rules would end, but this new law would never sunset, locking in not only the crop insurance bloat but also costly, unnecessary sugar and milk programs.
Though billed as a reform measure, the $196 billion legislation would reduce 10-year projected agriculture subsidies by a mere $12.8 billion, compared with current law. President Obama’s proposed budget would have trimmed $38 billion; House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would have cut $31 billion.
These subsidy programs are even worse than the ones the House voted down in June, back when it was still trying to pass a bill including food stamps. As such, they defeat the purpose of severing the two components: to facilitate a real policy debate and corresponding policy reforms. Indeed, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the House leadership rammed through this new, hastily drafted measure with no amendments allowed, the same sort of procedural heavy-handedness to which the GOP objected when Democrats passed Obamacare.
As for food stamps, the House GOP promises to take up a separate bill later — whenever that might be. Meanwhile, Mr. Boehner and company will take a hit for seeming more interested in crop subsidies than aid to the poor. But at least they’ve shown they can move legislation! Some things about Washington we’ll never understand.
Actually, the bill does have one more positive attribute: There's no chance it will become law. Not even its authors are pretending very much that it would survive a conference committee with the Senate, which passed a $955 billion bill, including $760 billion for food stamps, that claims 10-year savings of $24 billion over current law. Rather, the House leadership’s more modest goal seems to have been to pass something, anything, so as to get a conference with the Senate started, after which a bill — probably including food stamps and subsidies rejoined as per past practice — might emerge and get through the House. Real reform down on the farm, alas, may have to wait.