When the cash crop is your cash

Posted: Feb 17, 2005 12:00 AM

To balanced-budget believers, the first big mistake George W. Bush made as president was to not veto the 2002 farm bill. Not only did Bush sign the bill, but he also didn't try to stop Congress from larding the bill with corporate welfare -- which is like handing the car keys and a six-pack to a drunk driver on parole. The result -- a farm-subsidy package that cost the average American household some $1,800 over 10 years, according to the Heritage Foundation.

 Now, Bush is trying to atone. In his new budget, the White House has proposed a 5 percent cut in farm subsidies and, more important, a cap of $250,000 per farmer. If enacted, this reform -- especially the $250,000 cap -- would pull some big, overfed snouts out of the public trough.

 It's about time. Big agribusiness has found ways to circumvent subsidy caps and rake in tax dollars. If you want to see how well some farming operations have fared, take a peek at the Environmental Working Group's farm-subsidy database (www.ewg.org), which lists the top recipients in each state. In California, the Farmers Rice Co-op of Sacramento leads with a pot of $17.9 million in 2003. However, because the co-op represents many growers, Environmental Working Group president Kenneth Cook believes that the second largest California recipient -- Dublin Farms of Corcoran, with a take of $2.4 million -- better illustrates what a program, ostensibly capped at $360,000 per farmer, can mean to one happy customer.

 Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, describes himself as the only family farmer in the U.S. Senate -- which is why he wants to see reforms in farm subsidies.

 "The payments are going to mostly large farmers, I wouldn't even say farmers, landowners," explained his spokeswoman Beth Levine. Small farmers and young farmers are forced to compete with the 10 percent of farmers who, according to the Environmental Working Group, hog 72 percent of the subsidies. Grassley wants to change how the system works so the money goes to the farmers it was supposed to benefit.

 Who could oppose such a sensible reform?

 Conservatives support it because it means less government spending. The National Taxpayers Union's John Berthoud recalls how distasteful it was when the administration believed "we fiscal conservatives had to accept this lousy farm bill." His group is about to ask Congress to cut even more than Bush has.

 But conservative politicians oppose attempts to fix the pork-fest. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. and former chairman of the Agriculture Committee, pledged to fight Bush on this plan.

 Liberals support reform because they aren't fans of big agribusiness, would rather see their tax dollars spent on conservation or don't support taxpayer dollars subsidizing food exports, but liberal politicians have opposed it.

 In 2002, after voting in favor of a $275,000 spending cap per farming couple, both California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer changed their position and asked budget conferees to oppose that cap. In the end, Washington worked out the higher cap, which is a picnic to work around. ("California tends to have larger farms, and so when you have those caps in place, it does disproportionately hurt California farms as opposed to other farms in the nation," explained Feinstein's spokesman Howard Gantman. Without the details of what a new cap, or the next budget, will look like, it's not clear what Feinstein's position would be.)

 Clearly, this is an uphill fight. The more sense a spending reform makes, the less likely Washington is to go for it.

 Then there is the administrative nightmare. Good luck to whoever has to write the new rules to stop agribusiness from dividing and evolving in order to qualify for more subsidies and circum vent any cap.

 Some see this Bush gambit as a PR stunt. "Every January or February, the White House trots out an audacious plan that heartens liberals, angers entrenched political interests, engenders a national debate -- and ultimately goes nowhere," wrote the New Republic. And it makes you think that if Bush were serious, an opening gambit of a 10 percent cut -- rather than 5 percent -- would have shown more resolve.

 White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said Bush is serious and is "exercising responsible spending restraint in order to achieve this president's goal of cutting the deficit in half by 2009."

 The Environmental Working Group's Cook also believes that Bush means business. "It's pretty hard to talk about significant changes in Social Security payments and no changes in farm subsidies," Cook explained.

 Ee-eye, ee-eye oh.