Farming for Subsidies

An agriculture bill plants outrages.

"I will vote for it, because we've been in drought," Montana Republican Conrad Burns proclaimed to his fellow senators on Tuesday. He added, "Will it help people with draught? No, it won't."

Burns acknowledged other deficiencies in the federal farm bill that would pass the Senate the next day. In addition to doing nothing about the weather, the 10-year, $180 billion bill was over budget--way over budget. It also, he noted, included incentives for farmers to overproduce. Yet he would support it, and he was very frank about why.

"We are in a situation in Montana today were we need an infusion of money," said Burns. "That's what's driving my vote."

Burns' candid if confused remarks reveal the bill's true purpose: to harvest money from taxpayers and plant it in places where political flowers will bloom. These not only include rural states full of struggling family farmers and Archer Daniels Midland reps, but urban areas, where food stamps serve as scrip, and eco-friendly haunts, where pols hope green voters will reward them for transforming agriculture policy into environmental legislation.

For 70 years, the government has been shoveling money into rural America to prop up that most cherished of institutions, the family farm. Like most government programs, this has produced an unbroken record of failure. As columnist Robert J. Samuelson notes, the percentage of Americans tilling the soil has fallen from 21 percent of the population in 1929 to 2 percent today, even as the same amount of land is devoted to farm production. Like poverty programs that don't reduce poverty and jobs programs that don't produce jobs, this failure becomes a justification to dole out ever-larger sums of money.

By that standard, it's succeeding. The bill--which President Bush is eager to sign, presumably to make good on his campaign promise to bring a "market-driven approach" to farm policy--promises $70 billion in increased subsidies.

The proposed law is as contradictory as Sen. Burns' endorsement of it. By making farming more profitable, the subsidies increase land prices. A good thing, perhaps, for families that own their farms, but a bad thing for those trying to get a spread of their own. At the same time, however, they increase production, which depresses prices.

Bush's farm policy, like his steel and lumber policies, makes a mockery of his claim to value free trade. He certainly doesn't value it as much as the support of domestic industries in political swing states. Farm-state senators like the North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad justify the bill's blatant protectionism by pointing to the threat from Europe's government-supported countryside. But the real target is farmers in poor countries who might be able to earn a decent living if prices for commodities such as cotton weren't depressed by U.S. and European farm subsidies.

Why even call this a farm bill? It ought to be titled the Omnibus Unearned Income and Idle Land Promotion Act. Being a must-pass piece of legislation, it has attracted hangers-on who otherwise couldn't convince Congress to do their interests. With a war going on, emerging budget deficits, and a struggling economy, it would be difficult for anyone to persuade a majority of the House and Senate to support, and the president to sign, legislation that shells out $17 billion to promote conservation in rural America. But put it in the farm bill, and it's a cinch.

Not that such schemes aren't open to criticism--especially if word gets out that the preponderance of the subsidies land in the pockets of large corporate farms, not small mom-and-pop operations. Some of the dough even makes its way to legislators voting to pass the legislation.

But people can't criticize what they don't know. So legislators have inserted language into the bill to treat taxpayer payments to farmers as proprietary information, exempting them from disclosure to journalists and the other Americans who are, well, paying for it. It's outrageous, but then, so is the entire bill.

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