Is the Department of Agriculture Necessary?

Elisabeth Meinecke

3/14/2012 7:45:00 AM - Elisabeth Meinecke

The Department of Agriculture fosters economic waste, hurts the environment and provides little productive assistance in return. Here’s why the U.S. would be better out without it.

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From Townhall Magazine's EXCLUSIVE March feature, "Is the Department of Agriculture Necessary?," by Erika Johnsen:

"It's three agencies of government when I get [to the presidency] that are gone—Commerce, Education and the um, what’s the third one there? Let’s see. … The third agency of government I would do away with—the Education, the uh, the Commerce, and let’s see. I can’t, the third one. I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”

The awkward moment during a GOP debate last November in which Rick Perry forgot the Department of Energy as a prime federal candidate for elimination is widely regarded as the worst fumble of his presidential campaign; but it is, perhaps, easy to sympathize with the Texas governor’s brief memory lapse. In an election cycle in which the fate of America hangs in the balance between two futures—a future of bureaucratic inefficiencies, deficits and high unemployment, or a future of smaller government and stalwart prosperity— there are numerous government departments and agencies that have been singled out as choice options for severe downsizing and even total liquidation. In addition to Commerce, Education, and Energy, GOP candidates have bandied about criticisms of the Interior Department, the Federal Reserve, the Transportation Security Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency as government bodies that restrict the freedom and prosperity of all Americans.

There is at least one well-deserving federal department, however, that has escaped the various candidates’ zealous scrutiny—the Department of Agriculture (USDA). No sector of the American economy has been so consistently and unnecessarily coddled by the federal government as agriculture. The USDA’s many poorly-conceived policies result in not merely the direct waste of American taxpayers’ money but also immeasurable opportunity costs and unintended consequences that encumber the entire global economy.

In the federal fiscal year 2011 alone, the USDA spent approximately $152 billion. According to the Cato Institute, that amounts to more than $1,200 for every U.S. household. Although well over half of the USDA’s budget goes towards food assistance programs (food stamps, school lunches), which are not the focus of this article, the department’s other farm and rural programs can directly cost taxpayers up to $45 billion in a single year. With a long-standing history and plenty of available excuses for their existence, the USDA enjoys an entrenched position in American politics, even though their many “services” often inflict economic damage rather than the benefits they are ostensibly designed to provide. ...

A Bipartisan Addiction to Handouts

The case of New Zealand’s agricultural sector presents a perfect example of why all of the excuses defending the federal government’s supposedly necessary role in agriculture are false. In the 1980s, New Zealand made the decision to abolish almost all farm subsidies and regulations, especially momentous in their agriculture-heavy economy. There was a short adjustment period, but New Zealand’s farmers have been thriving ever since. According to New Zealand’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the agriculture, food and forestry sectors generate 64 percent of the country’s merchandise export earnings and comprise approximately 12 percent of gross domestic product. Their agriculture sector’s total productivity has increased by an annual compound growth rate of 3.3 percent between 1984 and 2007, compared with their wider economy’s growth rate of one percent. Clearly, their agriculture industry is doing very well without excessive government interference.

In March of 2011, Kentucky Republican and tea-party freshman Sen. Rand Paul introduced a federal budget for fiscal year 2012 proposing major cuts to the USDA such as means-testing commodity payments and eliminating the Agriculture Research Service. He pointed out that while there are less than 1 million farmers in the U.S., the USDA has 110,000 employees—or about one federal employee for every nine farmers. Unfortunately, Paul is one of the precious few congressmen to make such bold proposals—and the blame does not belong to the Democrats.

Between 1995 and 2009, 23 members of the 112th Congress, or their family members, signed up for farm subsidy payments, according to the Environmental Working Group. A little less than half a million dollars went to Democrats personally or their families in that time period, while over five million dollars went to Republicans. Rural areas tend toward electing Republicans, but it’s disturbing that voters from conservative areas demand spending cuts while simultaneously electing people to office who will not touch upon the topic of eliminating farm subsidies. Everybody wants to reduce federal spending, just not federal spending that benefits them. ...

Read more of Erika Johnsen's piece in the March isssue of Townhall Magazine, including:

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