IN TWO recent speeches, his Dec. 4 oration on income inequality and his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama proclaimed his commitment to fairness and equal opportunity. In the former address, he called inequality “the defining challenge of our time”; in the latter, he vowed to use executive action to meet it. So we hope Mr. Obama will pick up the phone, call Congress — and tell them he’s preparing his veto pen for the 2014 farm bill. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that this legislative grotesquerie gives to the rich and takes from the poor.
Tipping the financial scales at $956 billion over 10 years, or just over $1 billion per page, the hideously complex bill is supposedly a compromise that reforms crop subsidy programs. To be sure, it eliminates a program that gave billions each year in “direct payments” to farmers regardless of individual need or economic conditions, and it incentivizes participation in soil conservation programs.
But what the bill takes from the ag lobby with one hand, it largely gives back with the other. Of $40.8 billion in projected savings (over 10 years) from eliminating direct payments, the bill restores $27.2 billion via enhanced crop insurance subsidies and a new program that “insures” against adverse price movements. Supposedly necessary to secure the nation’s food supply at a time of record farm income and epidemic obesity, this federal largess flows almost regardless of how much money its recipients already have. People making up to $900,000 per year in adjusted gross income can qualify for payments. The total commodity-program take for any individual “actively engaged” in farming is capped at $125,000 — or 2½ times the national median household income. But this “limit” is mostly phony. “Actively engaged” has applied to many an absentee investor in the past; Congress did not deign to refine this plastic criterion. It asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to do so through the regulatory process, which farm interests hugely influence.
Meanwhile, the bill cuts $8.5 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the poor. Considered in isolation, this trim is both modest and justified; it closes a loophole that enabled states to award extra benefits by fiddling with recipients’ household budget data. It was preferable to the larger cuts Republicans wanted. But attached to so much corporate welfare, it’s hard to swallow, especially when that corporate welfare isn’t rigorously means-tested.
The bill’s total projected savings of $16.6 billion over a decade are paltry compared with the $38 billion President Obama called for in his fiscal 2014 budget — and two-thirds of this projected deficit reduction won’t occur until after 2019, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Indeed, the SNAP cut, based on a locked-in rule change, is the one spending reduction in the bill most certain actually to occur. The CBO necessarily bases its cost estimates for the subsidy programs on economic variables and assumptions that may not materialize in the “out-years.”
Exhausted by two years of trench warfare by farm lobbies, lawmakers are desperate to pass this turkey and move on. President Obama can put them out of their misery by signing it — or stand up for his declared principles by vetoing it.