The U.S. Senate has begun debating a new farm bill that would set agricultural policy for the next five years. One early problem is a revolt by southern senators backing rice and peanut farmers, who say the bill would reduce their piece of the pie.
Stepping back from the cocoon world of Washington, this sort of sectional squabble seems almost laughable. The federal government is running yet another trillion-dollar deficit, and the farm lobby is making a big deal out of a bill that would cut spending by — brace yourself — $2.3 billion a year.
But then, it may not result in lower spending at all. The measure would eliminate the direct-payments program begun in the 1990s and replace it with yet another insurance program for the big row crops — corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton. But if prices fall and yields drop, the new program could mean Washington might end up paying even more.
Uncle Sam already pays about 60 percent of the premium costs for the existing crop-insurance program. Adding an additional layer of insurance would mean farmers' planting decisions would be close to risk-free.
As farmer Darwyn Bach of St. Leo, Minn., told The New York Times, if nearly all the risk is removed from planting decisions, it makes sense to farm unproductive land because it's still possible to make money.
Keep in mind that farm income is already at or close to record highs. At some point, one would think that even members of Congress would understand that subsidized farming on marginal land is a waste of tax dollars.
The ecological damage resulting from such a policy is likely to be considerable. Beefed up crop insurance will mean the loss of more grassland and native prairie to the plow — which might make sense if the point were to raise more food. But encouraging farmers to plant unproductive acreage merely to collect subsidies is inexcusable.
Our farm programs began as a bid to rescue destitute families during the Dust Bowl. But long ago they morphed into an entitlement and most of the payments are funneled to the largest farms. Over the last 16 years, the top 1 percent of farms took in more than 25 percent of the payments.
Given the nation's dire fiscal situation, a bill that would cut these programs by a mere $2.3 billion a year is an insult. Surely Congress can do better than this.
Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.