Friday, November 30, 2001

In October, House Agriculture Committee leaders used the September 11 attack as cover to pass what is probably the worst farm bill ever.

The bill would add an additional $73 billion in farm subsidies over the next 10 years, an increase of 65 percent over current levels. It continues to subsidize the products that have always been subsidized and restores all subsidies that have ever been eliminated, and also creates new subsidies for products that have never been subsidized before.

As a result, tax dollars will not only continue to be used for wheat, corn, cotton, rice, dairy, sugar and peanut farmers, but will also once again support wool, mohair and honey producers as well.

At a time when our national security is the No. 1 concern of Congress, there is simply no excuse for dealing with the farm bill, since the current law does not expire until next October. The White House had explicitly asked the House to delay action on the bill because it would cost too much ($170 billion), last too long (10 years), encourage overproduction, jeopardize foreign markets and provide benefits to big farm operations least in need of them.

Instead, the bill extends current farm policies, which benefit a small number of wealthy farmers at the expense of small family farmers and American taxpayers.

It is not only unnecessary to consider the bill now, but it is actually contrary to the national interest. Overcommitting the federal government’s resources to farm spending over the next decade will either make that much less money available to fight terrorism or add to future deficit spending.

Either alternative should be unacceptable to our leaders. Pure political opportunism and fear that the budget surplus would disappear were behind this drive to pass the bill a full year before farm legislation would expire. A new period of austerity might lead to greater questioning of whether a massive increase in farm subsidies is really prudent.

The 10-year time frame is unprecedented; most past farm bills have traditionally lasted for four or five years. As a result, the bill would perpetuate record-high farm spending and limit flexibility to address changes in the agriculture industry.

Last month, the Bush administration enunciated farm-policy principles, which correctly assessed existing farm policy’s negative impact. In the House panel’s haste to grab as much of the federal money pot as possible, all forward-looking ideas were ignored.

Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican, recently introduced farm legislation that would provide real reform by phasing out crop subsidies and replacing them with risk management programs that are fair to all agricultural producers. This bill is much closer to the administration’s position than the other measure. It also recognizes that after 70 years, it’s time to retire the old farm programs.

A wide cross section of farm commodity groups urged the Senate to delay finalizing the farm bill until the spring of 2002. They pointed out that “rushing the process of developing comprehensive farm legislation at this critical time without full and careful consideration could well result in policies and programs that do not effectively address today’s needs.”

Alas, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, let the truth slip out on the real rationale for rushing the bill this year. He warned his colleagues that “there is money in the budget this year to write a new farm bill, and if we do not use the money that is available this year, you can forget that same amount of money being available next year.”

Mr. Conrad acknowledged that more money will be needed for defense, counterterrorism and rebuilding areas damaged in the September 11 attacks,which means the $73 billion would not be available for farm subsidies.

Despite that, or more accurately, because of that, the Senate Agriculture Committee followed the House panel’s lead.

Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, once gave lip service to taking a whole new look at farm policy. Unfortunately, under his leadership the Senate Agriculture Committee failed to do so.

If the full Senate follows this path, the collective irresponsibility of both sides of Congress will mark a sad day for the United States and for sound agriculture policy.

John Frydenlund is director of the Center for International Food and Agriculture Policy at Citizens Against Government Waste.

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