After recovering from a deadlock last week, the Senate passed a five-year, half-trillion-dollar farm bill on Thursday by a vote of 64 to 35. With programs for crop insurance, food assistance, and conservation, it would appear farmers and low-income families have been well taken care of, but Robert Paarlberg, author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, says some of these benefits are a waste of taxpayers' money. Excerpts from an interview:
What is new in this version of the bill?
We are eliminating direct payments, and I suppose that's new, but that's only been there since 1996, and we're using most of the money that went to the direct payments to expand the crop insurance and revenue insurance programs. So we're saving $5 billion on direct payments, but the more generous insurance subsidies could cost taxpayers about $9 billion a year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But the total spending won't change that much and the impact on agriculture won't be very dramatic one way or another.
Why is it controversial?
Everyone knows when the farm bill is coming, and groups have had years to prepare their position and to have a chance to either support or attack what's in the farm bill. It's a drama that takes place every five or six years, on schedule.
Why not repeal farm subsidies?
That wouldn't be a bad idea. It's not going to happen because there are so many institutions who have organized themselves for so long around federal farm programs, including the Department of Agriculture, the Agriculture committees of the Congress, a lot of lobbying organizations that promote the interests of commodity growers, plus those that support the nutrition programs. The farm subsidies are no longer the most prominent part of the farm bill. In the current farm bill, we are spending nearly five times as much on food stamps as we are spending on farm subsidies. So it's more a food subsidy bill than it is a farm subsidy bill.
Is it intended to benefit certain groups?
Those that are in favor of the farm bill are the beneficiaries. For example, we have generous protection programs for sugar growers in the United States that benefit people who grow sugar beets and plant cane sugar. The sugar program keeps cheap foreign sugar out of the U.S. market and raises the price that sugar growers in the United States get by a dramatic margin. Consumers have to pay more for any sweetened product as a result of this measure.
Does the bill promote conservation practices?
It gives money to farmers on the condition that they do certain things, but many of the conservation programs are entirely voluntary. Everyone thinks the farm bill shapes our farming system, but that's really not as true as it might have been in the past. Currently, the crop prices in the marketplace are so high that farmers are making their planting decisions based on market prices, not on the farm bill guarantees. Currently, the price of corn is above $6 a bushel, and the price guarantee in the new farm bill is likely to be no more than $3.50 a bushel.
Where do you think the bill falls short?
I think it fails to adequately address the poor targeting of most farm bill benefits. Most farm bill benefits go to large commercial farmers who are wealthy and successful even without those benefits. It takes money from taxpayers with average incomes and transfers that money to farmers. We are continuing to waste taxpayer money on politically protected subsidy programs to farmers.
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