Meet the New Farm Bill, Same as the Old Farm Bill

Taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance, like all farm subsidies, is a costly bipartisan disaster.


Congress may pass a new five-year Farm Bill this summer. On agricultural issues at least, a bipartisan spirit of compromise appears to be building in some sectors of Capitol Hill. If that continues to blossom, then America's taxpayers and consumers will again be forced to provide a needless crutch for many American farmers.

Next week the Senate will put its latest version of the Farm Bill, dubbed the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013, to a vote. About half of the Senate's GOP members joined with all its Democrats to ensure the vote would take place.

The Senate version of the Farm Bill would cost $955 billion over the next decade. A similar House version would spend a mere $940 billion.

Despite these outrageous costs, this Farm Bill has been falsely billed as a money saver. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, calls the bill she shepherded "an opportunity to cut spending."

Perhaps she meant to refer to it as a "missed opportunity." After all, it's hard to square Sen. Stabenow's claim with the bill's nearly billiondollar trillion-dollar price tag and shiny pork, including "new subsidy programs for Midwestern and Southern farmers."

And about those spending cuts. Approximately $4 billion of the alleged "savings" proposed in the Senate version of the Farm Bill is expected to come from mandatory sequestration cuts.

Other "savings" would come from cuts to direct farm subsidies, an emblem of bipartisan pork, which appear largely to be on their way out. Maybe. But it's small comfort, considering they'll be replaced with a dramatically boosted scheme of subsidized crop insurance.

Under the USDA's crop insurance scheme, the federal government pays nearly two-thirds of farmers' crop insurance premiums.

If that sounds absurd to you, you're not alone. Last year, a Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorial referred to federally subsidized crop insurance as a "boondoggle" that "throw[s] money at farmers, whether they need it or not."

Which farmers get crop insurance subsidies? Who knows?

Since at least 2000, the federal government has hidden from public view the names of crop insurance subsidy recipients.

In 2011, 26 farms each received more than $1 million in taxpayer-funded crop subsidy premiums, according to data provided by the Environmental Working Group.

Likely due to the fact Congress failed to pass a new Farm Bill last year, about 100 skittish national lobbying groups called on the Senate earlier this week to put the Farm Bill to a vote.

"We must cut unnecessary spending," these groups wrote in a joint letter to the Senate majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "We must provide an effective farm and natural resource safety net."

Of course, the safety net these groups beg for every five years is also the unnecessary spending they suggest needs to be cut. But such is the logic of the Farm Bill.

Who stands against the Farm Bill's excesses? Maybe congressional Republicans?

MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell, who refers to himself as a socialist, has been blasting GOP members of the House and Senate rightly for some time now for protecting what O'Donnell calls "agricultural socialism."

Like me, it's the bipartisan nature of farm subsidies that most sickens O'Donnell.

"No socialist program gets more unbridled bipartisan support than agriculture socialism, our single worst and stupid and most inefficient form of socialism in this country," he said earlier this week.

Keep Food Legal, the nonpartisan nonprofit I lead, is currently taking a hard look at the bipartisan politics behind the Farm Bill for a forthcoming report we anticipate releasing later this year.

As I noted in an earlier column, one of several I've written on the Farm Bill, our early research indicates that GOP-dominated states and GOP districts in Democratic-dominated states appear to "grab an outsized share of subsidies, and that this share represents a huge overall percentage of USDA subsidy payments."

Our report, tentatively titled Compromising the Farm: The Politics of Farm Subsidies, will include in its findings the fact that an overwhelming majority of congressional districts receiving direct farm payment subsidies in recent years were represented by GOP congressman.

For example, our data indicate that 75 percent of the 30 most subsidized congressional districts in 2012 were led by GOP representatives.

That makes the prospects for the GOP-led House to put the brakes on the abominable farm subsidies evident in this Farm Bill sometime later this month more crucial—and less likely.

Whether or not farm subsidies are a socialist program, there's no mistaking that they're simply bad bipartisan policy.

That's not to say that crop insurance is a bad idea. It's not. Buying crop insurance is actually a good idea for many farmers. But forcing taxpayers to subsidize farmers' risk in a spirit of bipartisanship is not.