Congress Is Up to Old Tricks in the New Farm Bill

The newest farm bill is chock full of budget busting programs and gimmicks.

By + More

The nearly three-year saga surrounding efforts to pass a new $1 trillion farm bill might be coming to a head very soon. Over the last couple of weeks, the leadership of the House and Senate agriculture committees has been negotiating in hopes of hammering out a final farm bill before Thanksgiving and a final vote before the end of the year. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Stabenow, D-Mich., claimed recently that they've made great progress.

As part of their PR campaign surrounding their hoped-to-be-finished-soon bill, farm state lawmakers and agriculture lobbyists have repeatedly heralded it as an oasis of bipartisan deficit-reducing compromise in a desert of scorched earth partisanship. Touting the farm bills as the only pieces of bipartisan legislation to actually pass through their respective chambers, they're pushing them as models for how lawmakers can come together and compromise on other pieces of legislation, such as a highway bill, the budget or even future entitlement reform.

But in reality these bills aren't a new way forward for the country. They're an example of business as usual where lawmakers try to please everyone by avoiding tough decisions and saying no to no one. And their supposed "savings" are really a case of budget chicanery and legislative tricks that look great on paper but disintegrate in reality.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Just look at the supposed deficit reduction in these bills.

  • The bills promise to cut spending, but first they increase spending in 2014.
    • The programs in any compromise bill will likely expire in five years. But official Congressional Budget Office scores on the cost of the bills are projected for ten years (that's a rule for all legislation). The committees take advantage of this and make it so that nearly two-thirds of the "cuts" in the farm bills will occur after 2018. In reality, this would be after yet another farm bill will have replaced whatever comes out of this round.
      • More than half the potential $50 billion  in savings found from cutting discredited ACRE, direct and Counter-Cyclical payments, is squandered on new "shallow loss" business income entitlements and government-mandated minimum prices.
      • Spending is cut, but first spending is increased. Savings are calculated over the next 10 years, while in reality the programs will be replaced in five years. And some failed programs are eliminated, but new ones are created in their place. That's not a model for reform, it's a mirror image of the failed past.

        Even if you put the budget gamesmanship aside, the idea that a farm bill can be a deficit reduction bill isn't buoyed by history. The following chart uses official CBO scores of legislation when the bills were passed and official CBO budget numbers for each fiscal year.

        [See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

        As you can see the Congressional Budget Office isn't exactly the Farmer's Almanac when it comes to predicting the cost of farm bills. After the dust settles, the last two farm bills will have exceeded their CBO score by more than $400 billion. There is no reason to believe this dismal track record will be improved. So passing a nearly $1 trillion bill in order to realize a CBO-scored savings of about $20 billion is a fool's errand.

        This isn't ideology, it's just math.

        Budget gimmicks and back-room legislating is part of what got the country into this fiscal mess. Taxpayers can afford nothing less than a final farm bill that is truly focused on the best interests of the country, rather than one designed to address parochial concerns for narrow constituencies. If Agriculture Committee leaders are unwilling to make the tough choices to craft a farm bill that is more cost-effective, transparent, accountable to taxpayers, and reflective of today's modern production practices, then all pieces of legislation should be scrapped and the committees head back to the drawing board.

        Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

        • Read Lisa Chau: Startup Advice From the Former President of Google Enterprise
        • Read Robert Dietz: Amrica's Aging Population Presents Opportunities and Challenges for Housing
        • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad