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K Street Food Fight

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Watch out! The pork-laden farm bill is coming to the People’s House. Just like in the Senate, the same special interests undermining their competitors and crying foul that someone else is getting a better handout will be out in full force to ensure the House of Representatives keeps the government trough filled to capacity, courtesy of the taxpayers.

You may have heard of some of the teams in the special interest division of the food fight: the Maple Syrup Leafs, the Popcornhuskers, and the Fightin’ Catfish. But as egregious as the specific handouts these teams – er – industries are looking for, the large-scale corporate interests who want special treatment for their specific crops, despite near-record high crop prices and near-record low debt ratios, are even more egregious.

In this corner are the Riceotopes, the Miami Wheat, the Sugarhawks and, of course, the heavily favored Corn Sox. These multi-billion dollar industries expect to keep their profits high, again thanks to taxpayers.

Of course, every industry faces economic “headwinds,” and they must plan accordingly. However, when it comes to food, the federal government insures that the money keeps growing, even if the crops don’t.

For our U.S. Senators, the old systems of subsidies weren’t enough. Their version of the farm bill creates a new shallow-loss insurance scheme known as Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) to replace direct subsidies. ARC covers revenue losses and can be purchased on top of already existing taxpayer subsidized crop insurance. The results: a revenue guarantee of up to 90%.

Can you imagine if taxpayers ensured 90% of the banking industry’s revenue, even during the 2008 financial meltdown? Americans of all political stripes would be apoplectic about such a misuse of taxpayer funds.

Apparently, farming is the only industry that provides a necessary product.

If it sounds like corporate welfare and cronyism, that’s because it is. And the sad truth is that despite claims of reform, the 2012 farm bill will end up looking a lot like the 2008 farm bill.

The K Street food fighters loaded up the 2008 legislation with so much pork and tax increases that President Bush vetoed the bill (one of his few presidential vetoes). Unfortunately, 100 Republicans joined the Pelosi-led Congress to override that veto.

At the time, the bill’s $604 billion ten-year cost was quietly accepted by Democrats, Republicans, and the media (taxpayers were unaware what had been thrown at them). Now, the bill has grown to $969 billion over ten years, a 62% increase.

And that might not even be the full cost of the bill.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) believes that ARC will only cost about $3.2 billion per year. But this is based on crop prices remaining at their current, near-record heights. But as we know from other industries (and just plain commonsense), record profits are just that, records. Under most circumstances, such profits are not sustainable. If crop prices drop from these heights, taxpayers will be on the hook for the difference.

But the K Street food fighters aren’t just lobbing grub at taxpayers; they’re also turning on each other.

It’s Southeast versus the Midwest as the peanut, cotton and rice industries coalesced to oppose ARC. Why? Because Southern crop industries don’t suffer from the same hardships as Midwestern crops. The southern crops wanted a counter-cyclical payment system, which would require set target prices for their crops and a direct payment whenever prices fall below that target. But corn and wheat (Midwestern crops) favor ARC since their crops are more susceptible to outside variables.

It’s not all about regional loyalty, though. In the Southeast, cotton will receive its own, $3.1 billion income protection program, upsetting peanut and rice.

This is what happens when an entire industry is shielded from having to properly plan and insure for market forces that any other business may have to face; we get dependent sub-industries that want special handouts protections so that they never have to experience any sort of hardship.

It’s corporate government dependence at its worst, and something the House of Representatives needs to fix as they debate their version of the farm bill. Americans are paying for their groceries twice: once to subsidize the ingredients, and when purchasing the products. It’s time to put an end to that practice.

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