Beltway's Green Acres

Posted: Nov 09, 2007 12:01 AM
Beltway's Green Acres

Watch how the new Democratic Congress packs pork into this year's federal Farm Bill. You'd think that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are trying to make George W. Bush look good. The Democrats had told America that if they won power, they would end the GOP's unconscionable spending bonanza. Now the Dems are wallowing in other people's money.

In July, the House passed a pork-laden $280 billion five-year Farm Bill. Now, the Senate is poised to pass a $288 billion Farm Bill that hands billions of taxpayer dollars -- your money -- to agribusiness.

It doesn't matter that farm incomes are at an all-time high. The Senate Farm Bill mandates $42 billion in subsidies for five crops (corn, cotton, rice, soybeans and wheat). It sets aside $26 billion in "direct payments" to farmers or people who once farmed land. As The San Francisco Chronicle's Carolyn Lochhead has so ably reported, 10 percent of beneficiaries will receive 60 percent of direct-payment funds. Dead people have received checks. According to Time magazine, Uncle Sam has given Farm Bill money to 1,324 residents of New York City.

So why would Congress pass such an outrageous bill? Because it can.

And clearly Democratic leaders, as the GOP biggies before them, have decided that they are more likely to hang onto power if they give your money to Big Ag. They fear those farm interests far more than they fear the wrath of informed voters.

You've heard this song before. In 2002, Bush made the mistake of signing a pork-fest of a farm bill put together by free-spending Republicans.

Now, however, the Bush administration has seen the light. As Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner told reporters Monday, "The fundamental flaw with the 2002 bill is it pays farmers the most when they need it the least; it doesn't pay them very much at all when they've had a crop disaster." Conner objected to the fundamental unfairness of the Senate's bid to raise taxes on other sectors of the economy, so that more tax dollars can be thrown at "millionaires living on Park Avenue."

Speaker Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, promises reform in the next Farm Bill. Ha. Methinks that if Democrats can't cut corporate welfare in the very year in which they promised to deliver big reforms, they never will. In five years, Pelosi simply will have honed the bad habits that the powerful develop to strengthen their chokehold on power inside the Beltway.

Even modest reforms are doomed. Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., have introduced the Fresh (for Farm, Ranch, Energy Stewardship and Health) Act, which would replace crop subsidies with an insurance program, directing the projected $20 billion in savings toward conservation, nutrition programs and budget deficit reduction. Supporter Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, told me, "I don't see the Fresh Act getting through the Senate. Despite the logic, there's too much pressure from the farm community to continue the subsidies."

And this bill would not slash federal farm spending. "We would certainly prefer that all savings go to reduce the deficit," Schatz noted, but moving the savings to other spending was the only way Lugar and Lautenberg could get any support.

Or put another way: In Washington, it is easier to pass a bad bill than a good bill.

It doesn't even matter that many farmers believe that subsidies hurt family farmers and encourage factory farming. A Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City study found that the rural counties that got the most subsidies suffered the worst population loss and weakest job growth. And still there is no turning off the spigot.

Bruce Babcock, director of Iowa State University's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, told Time magazine, "It only makes sense if the mission is finding ways to shovel money to farmers."

No, it only makes sense if the mission is to buy re-election and partisan control by taking money from all taxpayers and giving it to a powerful few. It only makes sense because, beyond all reason, voters let their elected officials get away with it.