Farm Subsidies May Not Have Their Revenge In Washington


Will sacred cows be slain in the federal government's ongoing budget battles? The Wall Street Journal reports that corporate welfare for farmers, long untouchable by politicians in either party, are being targeted:

With the farm economy booming and Washington on a diet, a program set up in the 1990s that cuts checks to farmers could be trimmed or eliminated next year when Congress writes a new five-year farm bill. A group of conservative lawmakers has set its sights on these direct payments, and even farm-state Democrats who like the program say high crop prices make the outlays of about $5 billion a year harder to justify. Recently, the National Corn Growers Association, an industry lobby group, urged Congress to revamp the program, fearing it would be eliminated altogether.

Hold on a minute. Why do we need to do anything at all to get rid of these payments? Weren't they supposed to be temporary?

Oh right. They were. But then, well, not so much:

The farm payments at risk were supposed to be temporary. Lawmakers designed the program in the 1996 farm bill to wean farmers of rice, feed grains, cotton and later soybeans off years of subsidies tied to keeping portions of land fallow.

Here's the thing about "temporary subsidies" in Washington: They usually end up lasting to infinity and beyond. Anyone who wants to get rid of them ends up answering angry questions like: Don't you support the nation's hard working farmers? Of course, as with a lot of Washington rhetoric, that requires some unpacking. "Support" means "subsidize with taxpayer funds"; "hard working" means "doing record business"; and "nation's…farmers" refers to "your constituents, hint, hint." 

The direct payments have endured and are now a cornerstone of American farm subsidies. The $5 billion in direct payments to farmers accounts for a third of the roughly $15 billion in total farm subsidies last year, according to government data.

Benefiting are about one million farmers on 260 million acres of land spread around 364 of 435 congressional districts, according to the Agriculture Department and the Environmental Working Group, a organization that wants to eliminate some farm subsidies and use the money to protect natural habitats.

With the farm sector booming—the USDA estimates net farm income this year will be the second-highest in 35 years—direct payments have become an easy target. Iowa State University economist Chad Hart notes that the payments go to farmers regardless of crop price or quality—a way to provide assistance without violating international trade rules.

I'd be thrilled to see direct payments put through the wood chipper. But I'm still skeptical that it will happen. When Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, the Republican head of the House Agricultural Committee, was asked by Reuters to comment on the fact that the GOP budget put together by Rep. Paul Ryan calls for saving $30 billion by cutting direct payment to farmers, he basically chuckled and gave the reporter a pat on the head. Ryan's proposed cuts were merely "suggestions," according to Lucas. "At the end of the day, members of the House Agriculture Committee and I will write the next farm bill." It's hard to slay a sacred cow when the priests who made it powerful are still determined to protect it.