In times of massive deficits, why are we borrowing millions to subsidize profitable agribusiness? Lots of presidents have asked that question. George H.W. Bush tried to cut farm subsidies in the late 1980s. Bill Clinton did, too. George W. Bush wanted them ended as well. All failed.
The so-called 1996 "Freedom to Farm Act" was supposed to stop farm supports for good, by offering the carrot of extending crop payouts to growers, regardless of current commodity prices, in exchange for ending the flow of federal money altogether after a slow weaning-off period of seven years. But when it came time to honor the agreement, suddenly a new rationale appeared -- that of post-9/11 security. So crop subsidies reappeared under the "Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002," on the dubious premise that in a new terrorist climate, Americans needed to ensure the prosperity of agribusiness. "Investment" in today's bureaucratese, remember, translates into the government borrowing more money to distribute to special interests.
When worries about national security gradually died down, and when it was clear that agribusiness would not end subsides as promised over a seven-year period, a new justification arose: providing fuel for an energy-strapped America under the "Food Conservation and Energy Act of 2008" -- a $288 billion, five-year agricultural bill. Supposedly farmers now needed massive crop subsidies largely to ensure our independence from foreign oil producers and sky-high gas prices.
Even presidents cannot stop Congress from passing these unnecessary federal farm bills, because they are brilliantly, if not cynically, conceived. Such federal support always utilizes the current crisis of the day -- whether promises to cut the deficit, protect the country or provide new energy.
Two disparate special interests push massive federal agricultural subsidies. Agribusiness wants lots of government support money; the entitlement industry wants more food stamps and rural entitlement programs. Combine them, and we spend billions more each year to subsidize both constituents. Who can stop a bill pushed through by Kansas conservatives and Chicago community organizers -- especially when multiyear farm legislation always seems to start at or near national election time? What politician wants to go on record against rural "family farmers" or the urban "needy"?
But 2012 is finally the time to end the crop-subsidy business, with the annual budget deficit approaching $1.5 trillion in 2011, farmers receiving record prices on the open market, and the new conservative House of Representatives having been elected on the promise of fiscal responsibility.