Feeding at the trough
Say what you will about fat-cat lobbyists who write big checks for political access. Scream all you want about the pathetic system that allows corporate America to buy votes. But if that's corruption, what would you call the use of taxpayer dollars to buy votes? You would call it the farm bill.
Never mind that fat price tag for the war on terror. Or the future cost of saving Social Security. Or paying for prescription drug benefits for the elderly. Pay no attention to the fact that the budget, in surplus just a year ago, is now back in deficitland. Or that this president ran as a tightwad, devoted to cutting spending. Forget all of that, because last week George W. Bush signed a farm bill that increased farm subsidies by 80 percent. That's $180 billion over the next 10 years for some 2 million farmers. "It helps America's farmers," Bush said. "And therefore it helps America."
Actually, it helps Bush. Farm states like South Dakota, Montana, Missouri, Iowa, and Georgia are key to the Republican dream of retaking the Senate. Come to think of it, the farm bill also helps the Democrats who want those seats. "Once you get into a bidding war of this sort, there are no limits," says Indiana's Richard Lugar, a brave farm-state senator who fought a lonely battle against subsidies in this bill. (Can you say wheat, corn, rice, and soybeans?) But Lugar discovered that mutual political self-interest is the most dangerous commodity of all: Never has so much money been showered on so few with so little consideration. And never has a decision made by the Founding Fathers backfired so perversely: Since the Senate is configured by geography rather than population, agricultural states can drive policy. And they did.
Subsidy cycle. Sad to say, this farm bill isn't just another Washington example of the law of unintended consequences. The consequences are well understood and predictable. Most of the money in the bill will go to big corporate farms, which will then buy up lots of small farms. The subsidies become self-perpetuating: Politicians, after all, aren't exactly known for their willingness to take back money. What's more, subsidies also boost production, which then deflates prices. All of which does exactly nothing to stabilize farm incomes. "Then the farmers will need to be bailed out all over again," gripes Arizona's John McCain.
At least the 1996 farm bill tried to move toward lower subsidies and more market-oriented farm policies. It even eliminated junklike subsidies for mohair producers that, according to McCain, were initially proposed "because mohair was used to make the uniforms of the doughboys in World War I." The latest farm frenzy reinstates the subsidy--"one of the major achievements of the bill," smirks McCain. He's just as glad to see that the apple and onion producers have also been extended a federal helping hand.
But wait. Big subsidies from a GOP White House? How can that be? Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, argues that this bill is all about giving farmers some certainty about their future, not about giving Republicans advantage in the Senate. The 1996 farm bill, Rove says, required emergency spending additions every year, and that was bad. "There will be emergencies," he says. "But they will be authentic emergencies." Lugar says Rove is dreaming. "People are already asking for more," Lugar notes, and why not? They'll probably get it. "This is all about votes," says McCain. Rove instead likes to point out the bill's increases for conservation and food stamps. Nice try.
Then there's the little matter of trade. "I'm not sure how Bush can stand up and make the pitch to the world that we're for expanding trade when everything he's signing is protectionist," says Leon Panetta, who fought huge farm bills during the 1980s as a California House Democrat. And don't forget the president's decision to impose tariffs on imported steel. (Can you say West Virginia and Pennsylvania?) "Clinton would never have done that," says McCain, hurling the ultimate insult.
Not long ago, Ann Venemen, Bush's secretary of agriculture, presented a serious document about reforming farm policy. It disappeared. "They just forgot about it," says Lugar. "Given the desperate pleas of the party people for control of the Senate and House, they decided not to touch this." Remember that the next time some party leader delivers a lecture on fiscal discipline.
This story appears in the May 27, 2002 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.