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Budget Freeze Focus Turns to Farm Subsidies

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tonight, President Obama will announce a budget freeze as part of his State of the Union address.  The New York Times' Jackie Calmes described today (Jan. 27) what specific programs will be hit:

The freeze would cover the agencies and programs for which Congress allocates specific budgets each year, including air traffic control, farm subsidies, education, nutrition and national parks.

There is near universal agreement that the farm subsidy program, which subsidizes just five favored crops, needs drastic reform. But many in the mainstream media are pointing out that there are huge political obstacles to cutting the lavish, taxpayer-funded program that ensures profits for the largest growers of corn, cotton, rice, wheat and soybeans.

Newsweek's Katie Connolly:

The left also knows that much of the government's inefficient spending has powerful protectors in Congress. The blaring example here is farm subsidies, which often turn fiscal moderates like Kent Conrad, Ben Nelson, and Blanche Lincoln into staunch defenders of government intervention in agricultural markets. Congressional Democrats, who will ultimately be charged with implementing the freeze, have proved woefully unwilling to take on these voices in their party. So what does that leave? Programs that affect voiceless constituencies, namely the poor.

Time's Joe Klein:

Now, it wouldn't be a gimmick if the result was what Obama is striving for: cutbacks in ridiculous spending like farm subsidies.
The way this works is simple: The administration will target worthless programs, like agricultural subsidies, in order to preserve good programs. But the reason worthless programs live in budget after budget is they have powerful backers. And those backers will rush to Congress to protect their profits.

The Kansas City Star's columnist Yael T. Abouhalkah:

What's really needed, of course, is bipartisan agreement to cut a number of federal programs that taxpayers can't afford anymore.

But despite whining by Republicans (and some Democrats) about the runaway federal budget, there's little appetite in an election year to take these needed actions -- such as slashing farm subsidies.

Huffington Post's Jason Linkins:

And since powerful lobbies still exist and continue to exert influence on policy, the programs that find themselves in the crosshairs will inevitably be those without powerful, moneyed influence groups behind them. So it won't be wasteful farm subsidies that are eliminated -- it will be programs that benefit middle and lower class Americans.

At Think Progress, Matthew Yglesias thinks the entire budget freeze battle will be characterized by what happens with farm subsidies.

To try to game this out, let’s assume that Obama is really serious about tackling weak claims rather than weak claimants. That means you’ll see a proposal for drastic, politically unrealistic cuts in farm subsidies while keeping in place growing funding for useful things like community health centers. So what happens when that hits congress?

Scenario one is that self-proclaimed deficit hawks like Kent Conrad turn out to like farm subsidies, decline to implement those cuts, and pass a budget that doesn’t actually freeze spending. Then Obama gets to chide them, and say it’s not his fault congress is so spendy.

Scenario two is that self-proclaimed deficit hawks turn out to like farm subsidies, and Obama launches a big political crusade on behalf of his cuts, threatening to veto anything that doesn’t come close to the spirit of what he’s proposing. That would be . . . interesting.

Scenario three, the really troubling one, is that self-proclaimed deficit hawks turn out to like farm subsidies, and Obama draws a line in the sand over the concept of a freeze, while being flexible about the details. Under that scenario, the weak claims don’t get cut and instead the politically powerless need to bear the brunt of the burden of a tactical political gambit.

The nearly universal fear is that programs like commodity crop subsidies that benefit special interests will remain untouched due to the power and wealth of their beneficiaries. Meanwhile, conservation and nutrition programs will get cut simply because their defenders lack the deep pockets of the corporate farm lobby.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Colin Peterson made his prediction -- a prediction that parallels that of media thinkers in Ag Week:

If there’s any exposure here with the freeze, it’s probably in conservation programs and possibly nutrition, rural development and other areas, and not in commodities.

Does it make sense to freeze nutrition programs that help the neediest among us in these tough economic times, and freeze conservation funds that protect sensitive lands from the big growers who profit from the programs that will escape any fiscal responsibility?

Will the madness never end?

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