FRED WOLFERMAN: Pork and Pandering: Farm Bill Perpetuates the Stupidity
It was just last week that I vented about our profligate consumption of oil in ways unrelated to transportation, one of which was agriculture.
Who would have guessed (actually, I would have) that Congress would so quickly demonstrate its willingness to rush forward and do more of what it has already been doing badly for so long with its passage of the 2008 Farm Bill?
In a campaign year in which the operative word on everyone's lips is "change," the only change evident in this bill is more pork, more pandering, and more stupidity.
Consider the cost: $290 billion over five years. I know -- that hardly seems to amount to anything anymore, but if it is spent in the right places, it can still buy a lot of votes.
The first place this bill spends additional money on is food stamps, food banks, and other welfare programs, to secure the votes of urban congresspersons who might otherwise balk at subsidizing millionaire farmers. (More later.)
These programs, whatever their merits, are related to farming only insofar as everyone, even poor people, has to eat. They ought to be discussed, and voted on, in some other context, but in the longstanding congressional practice of swapping votes so everybody gets something, they appear in the farm bill to assure its passage.
The bill then drops money into favored congressional districts, mostly those of members on the agricultural committees -- $170 million for California salmon fishermen, $3 billion for California fruits and vegetables (let me think -- where is Speaker Pelosi from?), $126 million for thoroughbred race-horse owners, a mandate to sell part of the Green Mountain National Forest to a ski resort. What next, Yosemite? Oh, don't forget $75 million for the Socially Disadvantaged Farmer Outreach Program.
Then comes the really good stuff. With grain prices at all-time highs, the bill subsidizes farmers. It is pretty stringent, though. Once a farm hits $1.5 million in adjusted gross income, it is cut off cold. That applies only to direct payments, however.
Additionally, and without limit, price floors are maintained on most commodity crops, guaranteeing that farmers can continue to grow all they want, and sell it at prices below production costs, because the government will subsidize this operating loss up to a profitable level. This is the same device farmers demanded when they claimed commodity prices were too low for them to make a profit.
The program allows giant corporate farmers to grow massive amounts of grain and sell it abroad at a loss while being subsidized to do so. This squeezes out small foreign farmers in Third World countries, creating more poverty, and enmity, in those places while encouraging an environmentally destructive, petroleum-dependent global food distribution chain.
This is touted by advocates as a reform bill. It's hardly surprising that it should slip through Congress in the midst of all the political palaver going on, and backers are doubtlessly hoping no one will notice but the farmers.
At least one person in Washington understands what is happening. Remarkably, it is President Bush. He actually vetoed this mess -- although it turned out that he had a defective copy, so the bill now has to be rewritten.
The faulty bill passed both houses of Congress with veto-proof majorities. Bush should still veto the corrected version again with as much publicity as he can muster and force an override vote in Congress. He could then at least force congresspersons to take a public position and defend their votes. Who knows? Some of them might be sufficiently humiliated to change.
It may well be that food is becoming more expensive. It is still cheap by historical standards, but one of the reasons it has been cheap at the retail level is because we have been paying part of the actual cost with our taxes. Congress has subsidized producers to keep voters happy.
Besides, producers vote too. Now that commodity prices have reached levels that ought to be profitable, the subsidies continue.
Welcome to Washington. If you want to know where your money goes, why deficits rise even faster than income and why "change" is easier said than accomplished, you need look no further than the 2008 Farm Bill.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at email@example.com.
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