Thursday, July 26, 2007

While the TV cameras and newspaper headlines have been focused on the Senate’s struggle with high-profile immigration issues, a less-visible drama has been unfolding on Capitol Hill that also provides a clear test of whether the 110th Congress is capable of producing good public policy.

The farm bill, which governs a wide range of federal programs from farm subsidies to food stamps, is being rewritten this year. Previous farm bills, especially the 2002 version, are noted for their smoke-and-mirror rhetoric, fancy procedural footwork and bipartisan lack of political courage. So far, this year’s farm-bill drama appears to be no exception and is rapidly moving from a predictable Kabuki dance to the theater of the absurd.

The agricultural committees’ diehard allegiance to the powerful farm-subsidy lobby is nothing new. This time around, however, non-agricultural committee members and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle are under unprecedented pressure from an array of outsiders to reduce and overhaul farm-subsidy spending. Since January 2006, for example, newspapers in 33 states have written more than 170 editorials about the need for change, and with good reason.

Since 2002, the subsidies have bled about $15 billion a year from the Treasury. Absentee landlords who don’t farm, including a New York billionaire, creamed off billions. The top 15 percent of farm-subsidy recipients receive more than half of the payments and have an average net worths of nearly $2 million. These are hardly the nation’s neediest families. In the meantime, overproduction caused by the subsidies has driven down crop prices earned by developing-country farmers, many of whose families subsist on one dollar a day. Contrary to the rhetoric of the farm-subsidy lobby, the program hurts many of our farmers by giving artificial advantages to the largest, richest farms and undermining the prospects of small farms and new farmers trying to enter the business.

Farm subsidies have survived largely because of congressional leaders’ refusal to challenge the subsidy lobby’s dominance and the propensity of urban and suburban lawmakers to view the farm bill as a back-scratching opportunity. This time around, however, the agriculture committees’ prerogatives are coming under heavy fire as congressional members are being sent a message that the farm bill adversely affects their constituents and they are going to be held accountable for their votes.

Faced with the prospect of a rebellion on the floor of the House of Representatives, the committee has been rolling out one gimmick after another in a head-spinning attempt to maintain control of its own farm bill.

First, there was the creation of a so-called reserve fund in order to pour more money into an already bloated farm-subsidy program. It soon became clear, however, that the reserve fund didn’t actually have any money in it. That led to talk of trying to persuade House leaders to exempt the farm bill from Pay-Go rules and allow increased spending on farm subsidies without the required reductions in spending elsewhere. There was also a disingenuous and short-lived call for input from all sides to help write the House farm bill in committee simultaneous to an insistence that the farm-subsidy programs would remain largely intact. Sure enough, the committee voted down all serious reform proposals. It then had the audacity to adopt a sham limit on subsidy payments to persons with taxable income of more than $1 million a year that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described as “a critical first step toward reform by eliminating payments to millionaires.”

Red flags should be popping up all over the offices of the House Leadership. Only 25 percent of the public gives Congress a favorable rating despite the promises to clean up the legislative process and make it accountable to the public. No wonder. The public is tired of the endless corporate welfare, the legislative gimmickry and the end runs around budgetary controls that were supposed to produce fiscal responsibility. Apparently the House Agriculture Committee has forgotten the promises that House leaders of both parties made after the 2006 election. Obviously, the public has not.

While the farm bill may not be an eye-popping headline grabber, it will nonetheless be a major test of the 110th Congress’ political courage and integrity. It’s time for members of Congress to see the farm bill as an opportunity to put their house in order rather than a vehicle for maintaining the business-as-usual atmosphere that is steadily eroding the credibility of the institution.

Pat Toomey is president of the Club for Growth.

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