The farm bill that died in the last Congress has come back to life. It might actually pass this time.
Two versions of the bill being debated in the Senate and House cover a broad range of issues, from crop, milk and tobacco support programs to the cost of food stamps for the poor.
Farm organizations, environmental groups and members of Congress with distinctly different agricultural constituencies are scrambling to get their pet issues dealt with in the legislation.
The differences between the House and Senate bills will be worked out in a joint conference committee, probably in August. That is when the real farm bill will be written, and congressional leaders should insist that the committee produce a bill in the best interest of the public, not just powerful agricultural commodity organizations.
For starters, Congress should end direct taxpayer subsidies that are paid to farmers regardless of whether they grow anything. The danger, however, is that any resulting savings to the treasury could be wiped out by federal crop insurance, which is the farmers’ preferred alternative because the government pays 60 percent of the premiums.
Federal crop insurance has become the fastest-growing federal farm program, because of the taxpayer premium subsidies and because farmers’ losses can be covered not just for weather-related disasters but for market-related price declines, too.
Indeed, even in the record 2012 drought year, crop insurance payouts were related less to the drought than to a decline in market prices for commodities.
This is not necessarily helping the family farmer. According to the Environmental Working Group’s analysis, payouts of more than $220,000 annually went to 1 percent of the biggest farms, while the bottom 80 percent collected about $5,000 a year. Congress should address this by adopting a cap on direct farm subsidies at $250,000 per farm couple. The cap should apply to crop insurance, too.
Crop insurance should not be so lucrative that farmers are encouraged to take unnecessary risks and to put marginal lands into production. Congress should also tie eligibility for crop insurance to a requirement that farmers comply with soil and water conservation regulations. And it goes without saying that Congress should not cut federal funding that helps pay for conservation programs that help farmers who want to do the right thing to protect water quality and preserve topsoil for future generations.
The debate on the farm bill focuses largely on farm subsidies. But two-thirds of the cost of the bill — which is forecast to total more than $900 billion over the next 10 years — is budgeted for food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP should not be immune to cuts, but the House would cut $20 billion out of the program, which is far too much. Indeed, it would be ironic to preserve lavish subsidies to farmers while removing food from the tables of poor families.
These farm bills, which must be updated every five years, were created during the Depression to protect family farmers from the gyrations of the marketplace and natural disasters. But they have morphed into programs that subsidize corporate agribusinesses, often at the expense of family farmers, the environment and the real nutritional needs of the nation.
It is long since time to rethink the purpose of these farm programs and to split off unrelated issues like food aid for the poor that become bargaining chips by rural lawmakers to keep the votes of urban legislators.
Until then, this farm bill is an opportunity to establish some basic principles. Those principles should not just be in the interest of farmers but in the interest of all Americans who rely on the food farmers produce. And they have a right to expect that their taxes will not subsidize farming that harms the environment.
Copyright Des Moines Register. Reprinted with permission.