Farm bill boondoggle
I was interviewing one of the most liberal House Democrats, Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, when suddenly he surprised me by saying, “I hope the president vetoes the farm bill, and if he does I’ll try to round up votes on my side of the aisle to sustain the veto.” Mr. Blumenauer added, if the veto is sustained, “then we can start over and do it right.” President Bush did veto the bill Wednesday. But a clerical error in the bill is likely to force the House to vote on the bill again and prompt another veto.
Indeed, the Heritage Foundation just issued a report titled “Seven Reasons to Veto the Farm Bill.” The author, Brian Riedl, points out that since the last farm bill was enacted in 2002 net farm income has more than doubled. Yet the new bill would expand farm subsidies by some $25 billion. Moreover, the majority of these subsidies go to commercial farmers with an average income of $200,000 and a net worth of around $2 million. But the new bill would continue the subsidies to multimillionaires and large agribusinesses.
This new bill also would repeal income limits so some wealthy farmers could collect millions more than they now receive in annual subsidies.
House Rules require a PAYGO approach, so theoretically an increase in spending in a new bill requires a decrease in spending elsewhere. But the Congressional Budget Office reported the bill is filled with gimmicks to get around the PAYGO requirements.
This bill, in addition, increases subsidy rates. As Mr. Riedl notes, despite sky-high crop prices, subsidy rates are increased for more than a dozen crops. So if prices drop from the current highs, subsidies would be triggered.
No matter how high corn prices soar, the direct payment program Mr. Riedl says “would force taxpayers to send $2 billion in direct payments to corn farmers every year. Wheat farmers would receive $1 billion and farmers of other crops would receive an additional $2 billion.”
The bill would create a new permanent disaster-aid program at a cost of $3.8 billion over five years. Farmers already receive $20 billion in annual commodity and conservation subsidies plus another $3 billion in crop insurance subsidies.
Finally, the bill utterly fails to modernize farm policy for the 21st century. We are still operating within the framework established by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. Even Canada and Australia have updated their farm programs by substituting insurance plans instead of massive subsidies to even out the fluctuations caused by weather and pest invasions.
The problem for Mr. Bush is that the farm bill passed both Houses of Congress by veto-proof majorities. That would appear to doom the effectiveness of a second presidential veto.
But not necessarily. I recall when President Nixon vetoed the Brademas Child Development Bill in 1971. The bill had passed with but a single “no” vote in the House and only five “no” votes in the Senate. Yet after extraordinary arm-twisting, the president’s veto was sustained in both Houses of Congress. Whether Mr. Bush’s current veto is sustained likely will depend upon how much he and his people are willing to work to achieve that result.
Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and chief executive officer of the Free Congress Foundation.