The farm bill -- really a series of federal programs -- pays money directly to farmers and agri-business corporations to “supplement” their incomes, while making sure food prices stay high for consumers by involving Washington in complex schemes to buy and store surplus produce (rather than let it drive prices down), or to pay farmers to destroy food (“undersized” fruit, for instance) or to simply grow less in the first place.
It would be hard to imagine a weirder and more complex scheme, especially when one considers it’s designed to make sure the average voter and taxpayer pays more -- not less -- for his groceries.
Yet nearly $18 billion in tax money was spent on these programs last year.
Agriculture secretary Mike Johanns told farmers at the recent meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation in Salt Lake City that the farm programs need an overhaul. “I will be the first to argue that the 2002 farm bill was good policy for its time,” Johanns said. “But the agricultural and economic realities that influenced the development of the ’02 farm bill -- they simply don’t exist.”
Actually, the 2002 farm bill was a betrayal of earlier Republican promises to phase out the subsidies and price supports, entirely. Farmers took big payoffs in the 1990s which were designed to cushion the blow of the coming “cold turkey” price-support withdrawal -- and then marched right back to Washington and successfully demanded the whole mess be reinstated.
Starting again from square one, addressing the farm men in Salt Lake City like slow children required to repeat second grade, the agriculture secretary pointed out that high subsidies do not necessarily equal a strong farm economy.
The U.S. and other prosperous countries are under pressure from around the world to reduce their farm subsidies, Secretary Johanns pointed out. Conflict over the issue led to the collapse of World Trade Organization talks last summer.
Without an agreement, American farmers face retaliatory high tariffs and other barriers when they sell their own crops abroad. The WTO, in a case brought by Brazil, has now ruled that some American cotton subsidies are illegal. And Canada is pursing a complaint against U.S. corn subsidies.
“Now, surely there are people in this room who grow rice,” Secretary Johanns said. “Fifty percent of the rice that you grow goes into the international market. Do you want us to ignore the WTO and jeopardize that market?”
Illinois delegate Dale Hadden told The Associated Press he liked what Johanns said. With the Illinois River just a few miles from Hadden’s corn and soybean fields, he ships most of his crop to the Gulf Coast to be exported.
But Democrats, for all their recent talk about standing up to special interests, aren’t exactly looking for a “new direction” on farm policy.
“What I think we’re going to end up doing, you could say, is extending the farm bill,” Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn. and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told the Farm Bureau members in Salt Lake.
Though we probably shouldn’t give them ideas, Congress neither contemplates nor delivers any comparable five-year plan dubbed “the clothing bill” or “the computer bill” or “the truck and car bill,” designed to funnel permanent taxpayer subsidies on anything approaching this scale to the inefficient manufacture at unlikely locations of excessive quantities of those products, meanwhile propping up domestic prices for textiles or laptops or SUVs at artificially high levels by using punitive duties and tariffs to “protect” American consumers from less expensive foreign stuff.
What is it that’s unique about the market in food, alone, that forbids our delegates in Washington from simply allowing the free market to signal producers which products they can successfully grow and sell at the best profits (without, say, irrigating the desert to grow water-hungry foodstuffs?)
Nothing. Nothing, that is, except for the fact that -- back in the 1920s -- farmers facing uncomfortable adjustments from the high demand and prices of a grain market temporarily warped by the First World War discovered it was far less inconvenient to simply go to Washington and pay -- um, better make that “ask” -- the newly more accommodating “progressive” representatives there to gather up some of those newly available income tax revenues and spend them on a “farm bill.”
The best solution to the pending expiration of the farm bill would be to let it expire and pop some champagne corks -- a sort of national version of a mortgage-burning party.
The Constitution doesn’t authorize the Congress to meddle with farm prices. A decision to stop doing so would facilitate free trade around the globe, both helping to open foreign market for American farm (and other) products, and serving as the best kind of “economic aid” program for poor Caribbean and Latin American nations -- the kind where we simply buy their stuff, without channeling any American tax money through corrupt overseas bureaucracies.
But that, of course, is the one approach now considered unthinkable by all the players in Washington, regardless of party.
Because no special interest will bribe them to do it.