The case against the Farm Bill

Photo: Some rights reserved.

Photo: Some rights reserved.

The "new and improved" Farm Bill is getting a lot of support in Congress – a 60% "yea" vote in the House that wouldn't even let it get to the floor for two years, and likely passage in the Senate. In the end, the urban-rural devil's bargain that's kept the Farm Bill intact for decades will hold.

But that doesn't mean everyone's happy, or even satisfied in that well-you-can't-get-everything-but-we-got-enough-to-be-satisfied kind of way.

On the right and on the left, critics see this Farm Bill as a huge missed opportunity to reduce the size of government, restore farming to a more free-market system, and stop paying very wealthy individuals and companies to, essentially, do what their businesses are supposed to do.

The two loudest voices among the critics are, on the right, Heritage Action, and, on the left, Environmental Working Group.

Heritage Action has led the attack on the $80 billion a year food stamp program, which is, by far, the largest part of the Farm Bill. And frankly, it lost that fight, getting just a 1% cut. But Heritage has also fought vocally against farmer subsidies in their various reforms. While the Farm Bill does eliminate direct payments to farmers, it replaces them with crop insurance programs that, Heritage warns, could leave taxpayers holding an even bigger bill if payouts trigger:

An initial CBO score suggested the average cost of about $2.9 billion per year, but an analysis by the American Enterprise Institute found the program “could cost as much as $7 billion annually based on the 15-year historical average price.”  The inclusion of the House’s Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program is similarly problematic, setting the baseline for these commodity prices higher than what would be necessary to cover major losses. These baseline scoring gimmicks could wipe out all the “savings” that negotiators are touting in the conference report.

Way over across the political spectrum, the Environmental Working Group is in complete agreement on subsidies. "It's moonshine by another name," EWG's Scott Faber told the Wall Street Journal.

EWG is the group that established a farm subsidies database that shed light on some of the wealthiest who were receiving farm payments, many of whom weren't even farmers. That was fixed in this bill. But EWG says Congress missed an opportunity to impose tighter caps on income levels for receiving tawpayer subsidies:

[The bill] stunningly reject the bipartisan provision—included in the bills passed by both the Senate and House —that limited payments to individual farms to $50,000.  Instead, the [bill] increases the limit to $125,000 and leaves it to the Obama administration to close loopholes that allow large and highly profitable farm operations to escape even the higher payment limits.

So why didn't that happen? And how did, for example, the largest dairy farms in the country manage to avoid a higher tier of premium payments or a net-payment cap for their margin insurance, as bill conferee Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy had pushed for?

Well, look at the lobbying data and perhaps you can put two and two together:

At least 350 companies and organizations, including Monsanto Co. (MON), PepsiCo Inc. (PEP) and Dean Foods Co. (DF), registered as lobbyists in 2013 to work on the Senate bill, spending $150 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Only bills on the federal budget, immigration and defense generated more lobbying interest, according to the center, a Washington-based research group that tracks campaign donations.



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