The move isn't quite as public-spirited as it may seem. Lawmakers are now talking about turning a big chunk of the cash payments into a new subsidy and funneling the money back to the farmers.
The new program would add "shallow loss" coverage to crop insurance so that farmers would receive payouts not only in years of massive losses, but when revenue dips only 10 to 15 percent.
Critics of the idea note that this could encourage riskier behavior, including buying more land than it's possible to effectively farm; operators would know that crop insurance would cover any losses. One likely result: higher land prices.
Overall, leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees have proposed that farm programs be cut by $23 billion over the course of 10 years, which at $2.3 billion per year is a bit short of earthshaking. The recommendation will be sent to the congressional "supercommittee" charged with carving $1.2 trillion out of next decade's spending, along with a draft of the farm bill that will govern agriculture for the next five years.
Direct payments have been a target for a long time. The outlays are based on acreage and historic yield, rather than actual yield or market prices, and they embody the major flaw of modern farm programs, namely that big farms get the big money. Last year, according to the Environmental Working Group, nearly 60 percent of the cash went to the top 10 percent of recipients.
As professor Vincent Smith of Montana State University told the New York Times, the farm sector is not on the edge of catastrophe and is "really a very healthy industry." Average household income: $87,780 for all farms, $201,465 for households running large farms. This year is expected to be another record for farm income — $115 billion.
Isn't it time the taxpayers got a break from shoveling money to rich farmers? The supercommittee should carve this pork down to the bone.