"We need to stand up to the special interests, bring Republicans and Democrats together and pass the farm bill immediately," Barack Obama declared last November. It was a weird thing to say, since the farm bill, which subsidizes an arbitrarily chosen section of the economy at the expense of taxpayers and consumers in general, is special-interest legislation by definition.
The latest version, which President Bush has promised to veto, includes tax breaks for racehorse owners, "marketing aid" for fruit and vegetable growers, research funding for organic farmers, enhanced price supports for domestic sugar producers, increased subsidies for dairy farmers, a $170-million earmark for the salmon industry, and billions of dollars in automatic payments and "permanent disaster assistance" for corn, wheat, cotton, rice and soybean growers. Take that, special interests!
Less than a month ago, the Associated Press reported that "it's not a good year for a farm bill," what with surging food prices, record farm income, a tight federal budget and a resistant president unconcerned about getting re-elected. But in the logrolling culture of Washington, the solution to wasteful, unjustified government spending is more wasteful, unjustified spending.
"This is truly bipartisan legislation," says Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the senior Republican on the House Agriculture Committee. "There was give-and-take on all sides."
Mostly take. In response to fruit and vegetable farmers who have long complained about payments for other crops, the five-year, $300-billion bill expands existing subsidies while paying off the produce growers. In response to food price inflation, the bill continues the price supports and ethanol subsidies that contribute to it while boosting spending on food stamps. It even manages to combine two kinds of farm folly in one program, requiring the government to protect domestic sugar producers by buying imported sugar and selling it at a loss to ethanol refiners.
The bill's supporters are bragging about a new rule that would bar payments to individual farmers earning more than $750,000 a year and couples earning more than $1.5 million. That modest change is expected to affect about 2,000 subsidy recipients, less than 1 percent of the total. But it highlights the extent to which agricultural subsidies are a welfare program for rich people.