How to Fix the Current Farm Bill Fiasco

Congress should neither revert to the 1949 Farm Bill nor pass a new five-year Farm Bill. What's the alternative?


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."

That farmers wanted, needed, and deserved taxpayer subsidies is an idea that appears to have enjoyed wide support on both sides of the aisle.

The 1949 law—"passed by the present Democratic Congress—replaces most major provisions… enacted by the Republican 80th Congress," reported the Wilmington (Del.) Morning Star. "The GOP Law permitted somewhat lower supports for major crops."

That's not to say this slice of bi-partisan pork didn't have harsh critics.

The Pittsburgh Press editorial page blasted the new law under the headline "A Bone-Cracking Burden," calling it enough to "make the taxpayers even more angry about vote-seeking programs like buying farm produce with tax money to keep prices high."

"The taxpayer and the consumer are the forgotten man in this endeavor," complained Sen. Leverett Saltonstall (R-Mass.) after the bill's passage.

Even the president's own support for the bill was lukewarm at best. Reports about President Truman signing the bill noted with surprise that he issued no signing statement to accompany the bill's passage—a signal Truman was holding his nose as he signed it into law.

Criticism of post-1949 Farm Bills have been no less caustic than that levied by the Pittsburgh Press and Sen. Saltonstall.

A 1986 Milwaukee Journal editorial, for example, all but labeled American farmers employees of the U.S. government, noting that though "Uncle Sam himself… may not be out in the fields bringing in the crop… his money lines the pockets of many who are." The Journal then described virtually everything about how the Farm Bill works as "an insane way to do business."

And yet here we are today, witnessing Congress debating largely the same five-year plan.

So is it true that—without a new Farm Bill—we would be forced to live in an Instagram-like snapshot of the post-war America that existed before popcorn subsidies made her whole in recent years?

Not exactly.

One alternative either to passing a new Farm Bill or reverting to the 1949 bill would be to pass a one-year extension of the existing bill. A coalition of environmental, conservative, and libertarian groups is urging Congress to do just that.

They're pushing for cuts of $100 billion as part of the extension. That's in line with cuts I suggested in an October Reason column.

But even enacting those cuts might not prevent another back-to-the-future episode of the Farm Bill, where Congress could again use the threat of 1949 legislation in an attempt to ram through yet another lousy five-year plan.

But there is a fix. First, make sure this Farm Bill is the last Farm Bill. Second, if the specter of 1949 hanging over the heads of American farmers is truly the serious problem it appears to be, then Congress should do what it's empowered to do but almost never does: Repeal the law.

Scrap the 1949 Farm Bill. It was a terrible idea then, and appears worse still today. It's no alternative. So send it to the dustbin. Then Congress can and should get to work eliminating the very notion of farm subsidies and—indeed—of any sort of bloated, catch-all Farm Bill.