A few days ago, news reports began to appear suggesting that members of Congress might be nearing a deal to cut tens of billions in planned spending from farm subsidies. "Agriculture Committee leaders in Congress are closing in on a 10-year savings target near $23 billion," Politico reported last week. "To achieve that level of savings almost certainly means the end of the current system of direct cash payments costing almost $5 billion annually."
But as is so often the case in Washington, the proposed cuts aren't really cuts, at least not if you look at the larger spending picture; instead, they're a form of budgetary sleight of hand, in which Congress makes spending disappear from one program and then hopes no one notices when it reappears later in a different form. From The New York Times:
It seems a rare act of civic sacrifice: in the name of deficit reduction, lawmakers from both parties are calling for the end of a longstanding agricultural subsidy that puts about $5 billion a year in the pockets of their farmer constituents. Even major farm groups are accepting the move, saying that with farmers poised to reap bumper profits, they must do their part.
But in the same breath, the lawmakers and their farm lobby allies are seeking to send most of that money — under a new name — straight back to the same farmers, with most of the benefits going to large farms that grow commodity crops like corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton. In essence, lawmakers would replace one subsidy with a new one.
In fact, according to Montana State University agricultural economist Vincent Smith, the new subsidy structure may not save any money at all, and could end up costing taxpayers more than the current system. He explains over at the American Enterprise Institute's blog:
To get the ag lobby’s support, the deal would include passing a new “improved” farm safety net that is a variant of a current ACRE program. This bait and switch will keep subsidies flowing to already wealthy farmers and could cost taxpayers billions more in the long run.
So what is the “improvement”? It is a modification of the ACRE program that pays farmers a subsidy when the revenue per acre for a particular crop falls below recent statewide historical averages. Since crop prices are at, or near, all-time record highs, that means taxpayers would pay already wealthy farmers to maintain record profits—at a time when millions of Americans are jobless and not making a profit at all.
...This deal could end up costing taxpayers more money in the long run, too. If prices go down, even partially, towards more typical levels, taxpayers may be on the hook for much more than $6 billion in some years and, depending on the final structure of the program, could average as much as $5 billion annually. Add it up—over ten years, there would be no cuts from ag subsidies at all, just a switch in how they are received.
Remember: the $5 billion a year in direct payments that now form a "cornerstone of American farm subsidies," according to The Wall Street Journal, were originally intended to be temporary.
Read A. Barton Hinkle on ending farm welfare as we know it.