To balanced-budget believers, the first big mistake George W. Bush made as president was to not veto the 2002 farm bill. Not only did Bush sign the bill, but he also didn't try to stop Congress from larding the bill with corporate welfare -- which is like handing the car keys and a six-pack to a drunk driver on parole. The result -- a farm-subsidy package that cost the average American household some $1,800 over 10 years, according to the Heritage Foundation.
Now, Bush is trying to atone. In his new budget, the White House has proposed a 5 percent cut in farm subsidies and, more important, a cap of $250,000 per farmer. If enacted, this reform -- especially the $250,000 cap -- would pull some big, overfed snouts out of the public trough.
It's about time. Big agribusiness has found ways to circumvent subsidy caps and rake in tax dollars. If you want to see how well some farming operations have fared, take a peek at the Environmental Working Group's farm-subsidy database (www.ewg.org), which lists the top recipients in each state. In California, the Farmers Rice Co-op of Sacramento leads with a pot of $17.9 million in 2003. However, because the co-op represents many growers, Environmental Working Group president Kenneth Cook believes that the second largest California recipient -- Dublin Farms of Corcoran, with a take of $2.4 million -- better illustrates what a program, ostensibly capped at $360,000 per farmer, can mean to one happy customer.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, describes himself as the only family farmer in the U.S. Senate -- which is why he wants to see reforms in farm subsidies.
"The payments are going to mostly large farmers, I wouldn't even say farmers, landowners," explained his spokeswoman Beth Levine. Small farmers and young farmers are forced to compete with the 10 percent of farmers who, according to the Environmental Working Group, hog 72 percent of the subsidies. Grassley wants to change how the system works so the money goes to the farmers it was supposed to benefit.
Who could oppose such a sensible reform?
Conservatives support it because it means less government spending. The National Taxpayers Union's John Berthoud recalls how distasteful it was when the administration believed "we fiscal conservatives had to accept this lousy farm bill." His group is about to ask Congress to cut even more than Bush has.