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What Grows in a Drought? Government

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
When it comes to farming, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are adopting Rahm Emanuel's infamous maxim: never let a good crisis go to waste.

As the Washington Post
observed, this summer’s “brutal weather is manna from heaven for the agriculture lobby and its amen chorus on Capitol Hill.” The paper laments the drought is providing the “perfect excuse” for lawmakers to push Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) “into speeding consideration of a subsidy-rich, five-year farm bill!”

Last week, a dozen leading conservative groups – including Heritage Action – called on Speaker Boehner “to resist special interest calls to misuse the current drought to lock taxpayers into a trillion dollars worth of bad agriculture policy.” Even the New York Times agreed, writing, “there is no reason to rush forward with a bad farm bill just because of the drought.”

And “bad” is an understatement when it comes to this incarnation of the farm bill. It would spend nearly $1,000,000,000,000 (yes, trillion!) over the next decade, while locking in stimulus-level food stamp spending and promoting even more reckless farming practices. As the Washington Post editorial noted, the current federally subsidized crop insurance regime “encourages farmers to cultivate marginal land and engage in other risky practices, knowing that taxpayers will, in effect, bail them out.”

That is, in effect, what is happening with the emergency drought legislation the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will consider this week.

The cost of the emergency legislation – as rumored Friday – is roughly $300 million. In Washington terms, this is a relatively paltry sum of money, the equivalent to just 41 minutes of federal spending. We will surely hear that argument this week, as the legislation hits the House floor. But remember, it is that mentality – it’s ONLY a few hundred million dollars – that has us careening towards $16 trillion in debt.

More to the point, though, is that the need for emergency legislation is somewhat suspect.

Even though the country is experiencing its worst drought in decades, farmers as a whole are much less vulnerable. In-depth reporting by Reuters found “U.S. farmers face this drought in their strongest financial position in history, buoyed by less debt, record-high grain and land prices, plus greater production and exports.” The report speculated that thanks to a variety of federally funded insurance programs, “some lucky farmers…may even come out ahead of last year.”

According to the Washington Post, those federally funded insurance programs cover “more than 80 percent of farmland planted with major field crops — at least two of which, wheat and cotton, appear pretty much unaffected by the dry weather anyway. Dairy farms are the least likely to be in drought-ravaged areas, the USDA reports. And many of them enjoy federally subsidized insurance against rising feed costs.”

Of course, the “amen chorus on Capitol Hill” has another angle: livestock!

But Taxpayers for Commonsense (TCS) points out that since the livestock-specific disaster programs expired in 2011, producers “went into this year knowing they might not be renewed” and could have planned appropriately going into 2012.

How could they have planned for this? The Washington Post (again) explains, “farmers should have to hedge as other businesses do: by diversifying their product lines, purchasing insurance at market rates, leveraging assets or maintaining cash reserves.”

Oh, TCS also points out those livestock producers “still qualify for taxpayer subsidized crop insurance policies addressing declining market prices and gross margins or enroll in a non-insured assistance program.”

All this drought-induced hysteria hides two other important facts: 1) the House and Senate farm bills would actually INCREASE crop insurance subsidies and coverage; and, 2) nearly 80% of the farm bill is not about farms, but rather food stamps! According to The Heritage Foundation, the food stamp program has grown from $19.8 billion in 2000 to $84.6 billion in 2011.

The Washington Post is right to conclude, “For decades, federal policy has been training farmers to depend on government instead, and taxpayers have been picking up the tab.” That argument extends to food stamps and beyond, into almost every aspect of government. Government dependence is unaffordable and culturally corrosive, and it is time Washington lawmakers understood that.

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