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Secret Farm Bill Goes from Bad to Medieval

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Congressional Super Committee was created to make tough budget choices, but the leaders of the Ag Committees appear to be going in the opposite direction with more lavish subsidy giveaways to mega farms.

In their effort to exploit the secrecy surrounding the Congressional Super Committee’s deliberations to get the best farm bill they think they can get for Big Ag, agricultural leaders in Congress are apparently poised to make things much worse for the rest of us taxpayers.

Yesterday’s (Nov 15) The Hill newspaper reads, “’Secret farm bill’ primed for passage in debt deal.”

…legislators are using the supercommittee to avoid what would be a more public, election-year debate in 2012, when the current farm bill expires and new legislation would be scheduled for writing, according to critics of the effort.

Apparently, the only thing that could prime this pig for slaughter is to lard it up with every imaginable giveaway to the lobbyists for industrial agriculture’s trade groups. After weeks of fierce lobbying and disagreements and competition among growers of different crops to secure the biggest giveaways for themselves, the latest reports indicate that Christmas may be coming early for those with access to, and influence over, the secretive farm bill negotiations.

Earlier reports of what the farm bill proposal to the Super Committee might contain – remember, none of this has been debated in public hearings or committee meetings, and nothing has been released on paper – pointed to a new gift to commodity farmers in the form of a novel income guarantee on top of the existing, heavily subsidized crop insurance program.

The notion of taxpayer-paid guarantee of getting no less than 90 percent of their average income -  currently at record income levels - triggered a backlash, but even so, for some big agribusinesses, it’s apparently too paltry a gift. There are now reports that in response to the backlash, the income guarantee will only apply to corn, soybean, and wheat growers – who are currently riding historically high prices.

But rice and cotton growers aren’t exactly losing out. The rice growers, who don’t like having to pony up some of their own money for crop insurance and don’t have to worry as much about yield losses, would instead get higher price guarantees from the government. And cotton growers would get higher target prices and stronger revenue insurance.

Just for good measure, the current annual limits on how much any one farm operation can receive in subsidies would be eliminated. You read it right: unlimited subsidies for the largest mega farms despite year after year of record income.

For those of us looking in from the outside, it simply boggles the mind that agriculture leaders can somehow justify using a deficit reduction package as the vehicle for such a blatant giveaway to one favored industry. Have you heard anyone proposing to increase the amounts of government cash available to BP and Shell, or to guarantee the revenue of Bank of America and CitiCorp, as ways to cut federal spending?

Thankfully the Congressional Budget Office has done its part to slow this absurd giveaway to agribusiness. The Hagstrom Report (subscription required) reported last night (Nov 16) that:

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told reporters today that the leaders had gotten a score from the Congressional Budget Office that was over the amount that can be spent.

The question now is whether the Congressional leadership and the Obama Administration can stomach such folly.

Speaker Boehner has never voted for a farm bill and has repeatedly called them fiscally irresponsible. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has featured agriculture subsidies on his “You Cut” initiative. Will they now allow subsidies to go up rather than down?

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has championed policies that are fairer for working Americans and protective of the environment. What does she think about a new income guarantee for a subset of farmers in a package that cuts food stamps and farm conservation programs?

President Obama has consistently supported payment limits on farm programs. Will he allow them to be gutted now?

What all of this boils down to is that we need to expose these proposals to the cold light of day – to see them on paper, if that’s not too much to ask – before writing them into law. Let’s hope the Super Committee doesn’t fall for this latest gambit. The Agriculture Committees should write a farm bill through an open, orderly process next year.