Politics drives farm bill policy

Farm subsidies are necessary at times, but the broad use in proposed legislation is too much.

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The U.S. farm subsidy program can be an important tool in stabilizing crop prices and ensuring a consistent food supply. The federal program began in the midst of the Great Depression as a way to get food in bellies and improve the economy.

Much has changed since the Great Depression, but federal handouts for farmers and corporations continue despite clear abuses of the system.

And this year’s agriculture policy proposals seek to continue down the same path. The plan in the House offers so much for so many different constituencies that members of Congress have a hard time saying no, fearing their piece of the action will be lost.

“We’re in a golden age of agriculture,” with producer profits projected at a record $128.2 billion this year, said Vince Smith, a professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University. The House bill “is about as bad a bill as I could think of writing as an economist.”

A quick look at a few of the details in the 1,198-page legislation backs up Smith’s statement.

Bloomberg News reported this week the House plan contains an initiative to guarantee prices for sushi rice, insurance for alfalfa and a marketing plan for Christmas trees. Catfish farmers are also in line for a little financial help.

Add thousands of other farm-related (sometimes loosely related) payment programs and the result is a House farm legislation package with a 10-year price tag of $939 billion. The Senate plan calls for spending $955 billion over a decade.

Help for some aspects of farming and specific products can be justified, but many more cannot. It is particularly galling when giant corporations glean taxpayer money from the legislation. A few of the big winners could be crop-buying company Archer-Daniels-Midland, insurers Wells Fargo & Co. and the SuperValu grocery chain.

Putting together legislation with enough support to be approved by the Republican-led House and Democrat-controlled Senate involves deal making inside and outside of Congress.

An example is the way growers of cotton, peanuts and other Southern-state crops who were dissatisfied with last year’s Senate plan came together this year to get all a piece of the pie, according to Bloomberg News.

“It’s such a big bill there’s something for everyone,” said Josh Sewell, a policy analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense.

And that is why much of what is in the proposals could be adopted.

Sadly, good (as in effective) politics still trumps good public policy.

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