- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

President Bush will dutifully sign whatever pork-swollen bomb-of-a-farm-bill Congress sends him. Though the estimated cost of the additional handouts in the six-year bill continues rising ever closer to $100 billion, Mr. Bush will not squander any of his political capital protecting the American taxpayer.
The hottest controversy in congressional deliberations over the farm bill has been the question of payment limits. The House Agriculture Committee approved a bill that would have purportedly capped payments at $550,000 per year per farm, while the Senate Agriculture Committee came in with a coldhearted limit of $275,000 in handouts per farm per year.
The Senate's parsimony caused great anguish among farmers who believe such a stringent limit violates their natural right to a regal standard of living, courtesy of Washington. Sen. Jean Carnahan, Missouri Democrat, urged her colleagues to revise the bill "to protect rice and cotton growers" who she said the payment limit would "disproportionately affect."
Rep. Charles Stenholm, Texas Democrat, the patron saint of USDA boondoggles, whined, "The Senate payment limitation language was written by folks who don't necessarily appreciate the significant differences in agriculture among the various parts of the U.S. Cotton and rice are more expensive to grow."
No one has produced any evidence that rice and cotton plantation owners are being forced to grow crops at gunpoint. Yet, simply because they choose to produce certain items, their representatives in Washington apparently believe they are entitled to unlimited handouts in perpetuity.
This is another in a long history of idiotic debates about federal programs that have no right to exist. Back in 1990, the congressional farm bloc was outraged over proposals by Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and Rep. Dick Armey, Texas Republican, to limit federal handouts to wealthy farmers. Several congressmen characterized the proposals to end handouts to big farmers as suspiciously akin to communism. Rep. Robin Tallon, South Carolina Democrat, warned: "We do not have to imagine what life would be like without a responsible farm program. We need only look to the Soviet Union where people will wait in line for hours in hopes that they can buy a small portion of beef or bread." Rep. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, warned: "This effort to end participation of our most successful farmers and investors in the farm programs sounds a lot like the way the Poles and Russians organized their agricultural policy before the Berlin Wall came down."
This year, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana is practically the lone well-informed Republican who has sought to derail this farm bill farce.
Mr. Lugar warns that the lavish new subsidies will result "almost inevitably" in " vast oversupply and lower prices" and demands for even more subsidies.
Conservative and free-market forces have brought little intellectual artillery to the farm bill battle. Instead, many conservatives and libertarians are content to rhapsodize over the wonders of the 1996 so-called Freedom to Farm Act (the last major previous farm legislation). Such praise vivifies how few people in Washington look beyond the deceptive label congressmen attached to legislation.
Back in 1996, House Speaker Newt Gingrich hyped the farm bill as a triumph of his Republican Revolution, bragging, "We passed the Freedom to Farm Act, which includes ending the [farm] subsidies after 60 years" of government handouts. In reality, the "Freedom to Farm Act" was one of the clearest examples of the hypocrisy of Mr. Gingrich and many other Republican congressmen.
The 1996 farm act gave subsidized farmers more than 3 times as much in cash handouts in 1996 and 1997 than they would have received under the previous five-year farm bill. Wheat farmers got 50 times more in subsidies for their 1996 crop than they would have gotten if Congress had merely extended existing farm programs.
And when crop prices went south, Congress scrambled to appropriate more billions for farmers in 1998 and repeatedly afterward. And with each new bucket of handouts thrown at farmers, Republicans repeated their praise of "freedom to farm."
The Republican congressional leadership never made a vigorous attempt either in 1996 or this year to abolish farm programs. While congressional leaders may proudly vote against the bill, they did little or nothing to attempt to frame the debate in a way that would end the waste.
But responsibility for the farm bill debacle rests first and foremost with George Bush. Historically, congressmen run wild with promises of lavish subsidies and it is only the veto threats of a dutiful president that limits the fiscal damage. On farm policy, as in other domestic areas, Mr. Bush has been AWOL.
Republicans and conservatives, mesmerized by Mr. Bush's current poll approval ratings, may assume Mr. Bush can sign off on an endless number of boondoggles with no damage to his credibility or reelection chances. But Mr. Bush's passion for a perpetual war on terrorism has not conferred upon him the right to misgovern Americans.


James Bovard is the author of "Farm Fiasco" (1989) and "Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years" (2000).


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