There was quite a bit of backslapping and self-congratulations on the Senate floor Thursday following the overwhelming passage of new farm legislation that will cost taxpayers nearly $1 trillion over the coming decade. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., engaged in the time honored tradition of cloaking the lawmakers’ handiwork in the mantle of “significant reform,” and indeed there were some important breakthroughs.
But in their desire to satisfy important farm states and rural constituents in the run-up to a crucial fall election, the Senate passed up a golden opportunity to make more serious cuts in spending and to create a new kind of safety net for farmers more aligned with the realities of 21st Century agriculture.
The bipartisan farm bill, approved 64 to 35, will eliminate the $5 billion a year in direct payments to producers of corn, wheat, soybeans and other crops, an enormously costly and wasteful program that over the years showered farmers and land owners with subsidies, whether or not they actually grew the crops. The legislation will also streamline Agriculture Department bureaucracy by consolidating 23 conservation programs into 13, and it will crack down on fraud and abuse in the federal food stamp program, which accounts for a startling 80 percent of agriculture related spending.
COST CUTS FALL SHORT
Overall, the Senate-passed bill would reduce spending by $23 billion below what it would otherwise be under current law over the next ten years. Nonetheless, overall government farm spending will continue to grow, and will be 60 percent more in the coming decade than under the old law. Congress is trying to slow the rate of growth through cost cutting, including about $4.5 billion from the massive food stamp program.
“It cuts subsidies, it cuts the deficit and it creates jobs,” Stabenow said following the Senate action. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee, said passage of the bill “shows what can happen if we break the logjam of partisanship and work together to get something done.”
Whether the House can do any better when it begins work on its version of the legislation next month remains to be seen. For now, it looks as if the farm lobby will pretty much be able to preserve the status quo.
Few doubt that farming is a tough, hard business with lots of risks and uncertainties, ranging from unpredictable weather and high fuel costs to the vagaries of global farm prices and demands. But at a time when the federal government appears headed for a fiscal cliff and struggles with more than a trillion dollar a year deficit, many budget experts and advocacy groups say the nation can no longer afford a gold-plated agriculture program that takes virtually most of the risk out of farming.
While the overall economy is struggling to recover from the Great Recession, agribusiness is doing well and food prices are up. Net farm income this year will total an estimated $98 billion, and it nearly doubled between 2001 and 2011. Moreover, farm businesses exported nearly $140 billion worth of products, exceeding imports of agricultural products by more than $37 billion.
Yet the bill only cuts a mere 2.3 percent over the coming decade according to the Congressional Budget Office baseline, and less than the $30 billion reduction requested by President Obama. The bill’s $969 billion overall price tag is 60 percent larger than the cost of the last farm legislation passed four years ago.
While eliminating the direct payments to farmers and farmland owners in the new bill, the Senate shifted some of those savings to the already highly subsidized federal crop insurance program, which was created to protect farmers against drought and flooding or precipitous drops in crop prices.
CONGRESSIONAL SHELL GAME
In a sense, the senators were playing a shell game, moving around billions from one overly generous subsidy program to another to help make farming virtually risk free for a relatively small universe of farmers. Currently the government subsidizes about 62 percent of the crop insurance premiums, and the policies typically guarantee 75 to 85 percent of a farmer’s revenues. Not a bad deal. The CBO estimates this program will cost more than $90 billion over the next decade, a $5 billion increase.