Having failed so far to pass a five-year Farm Bill despite repeated attempts, Congress is making what appears to be a final push to resuscitate the bill—the current version of which expired in September.
To no one’s surprise, there are the familiar, shopworn, and empty calls to craft “a smarter and more focused farm safety net for the future.”
But legislators and Farm Bill cheerleaders have also brought out their dandiest smoke and mirrors as part of the last-ditch effort.
The latest ploy by some in Congress to pass the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012—as the latest iteration of the five-year Farm Bill is known—is to the fashion the legislation as a deficit-reduction measure.
“The Farm Bill is the only bipartisan deficit reduction bill that passed the Senate this year,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee.
As I noted in a Reason column in May, a Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorial referred to one of the signature features of that “deficit reduction bill”—federally subsidized crop insurance—“as yet another congressional ‘boondoggle’ that ‘throw[s] money at farmers, whether they need it or not.’”
The notion that passing yet another bloated Farm Bill will somehow reduce the federal deficit is absurd to me and others as well. Joe Spear of the Mankato Free Press, for example, makes clear this Farm Bill would just throw good money after bad.
The more interesting argument in favor of passing a last-minute Farm Bill is the factually correct statement that not passing a new bill will automatically trigger a revival of 1949’s so-called permanent and “fairly scary” Farm Bill legislation.
It’s true that some facets of the 1949 bill—signed into law on Halloween that year—seem downright spooky.
First, the 1949 law parties like it’s still 1945. A Free Lance-Star report on the occasion of President Harry Truman signing the bill into law notes it "permits continuation of farm price support at or near wartime levels.” That’s “wartime” as in World War II.
The Miami News reported the law would increase the price of butter, decrease egg prices, and maintain "rigid high wartime supports for" wheat, corn, rice, and peanuts. It also added other products like honey to the list of agricultural products receiving similar support.
An increase in butter prices driven by the law was expected to be offset, as prices rose, by the federal government's expected dumping of nearly 100 million pounds of butter the government had stashed in cold storage.
The federal government estimated that under the 1949 Farm Bill it would spend more than $400 million (adjusted for inflation) per month to buy surplus agricultural products from U.S. farmers.
Despite all these hideous elements, the 1949 Farm Bill passed by wide bi-partisan margins in both the House and Senate.
How did such a terrible bill pass with such support? The chief debate over the 1949 Farm Bill—as now, unfortunately—was not whether price supports and other subsidies were a good idea or were the proper role of government but, rather, "how far the government should go in supporting farm prices."