Froma Harrop: Farm bill's political double standard

November 16, 2013 

Many conservatives want farm bills to stop coupling food stamps to agricultural subsidies. They see the linkage as an unsavory deal between urban Democrats and rural Republicans to waste the people's money.

But not all conservatives are principled conservatives. Principled conservatives oppose the farm subsidies as a monstrous example of corporate welfare. The other kind thinks it can strip spending from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program while preserving the farm rip-offs.

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin offers an example of the latter. "Farm-state lawmakers should no longer assent to the crass legislative tactic of combining farm policy and food stamps," he writes for National Review Online. "Instead of greasing the skids, the rapid growth in the use of food stamps is actually a major factor holding up the five-year reauthorization of agriculture programs."

A more realistic view of the politics involved comes from an agricultural bankers conference in Minneapolis. "If we succeed in taking food and nutrition programs out of the farm bill, this is the last farm bill," Kansas State University economist Barry Flinchbaugh told Hoosier Ag Today.

The notion that a giant wave of support for slashing food stamps is crashing across the land may be a wee bit off politically. And the idea that the public approves of taxpayer handouts overwhelmingly geared toward the rich -- including such renowned agriculturalists as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and investment company chieftain Charles Schwab, both billionaires -- well, what can you say?

Flinchbaugh lays out the simple math: "There's 400 urban districts in the House, 35 rural. This isn't rocket science. Who needs who?"

The politics stink, and so do the aesthetics. Compassionate conservatives are appalled by the food stamp cuts, especially after lawmakers actually fattened the farm payouts -- and at a time of fabulous crop prices.

"The conservative war on food stamps is the most baffling political move of the year," writes Henry Olsen of the Ethics & Public Policy Center. "What gives? And why are conservatives overlooking a far more egregious abuse of taxpayer dollars in the farm bill?"

Both the House and Senate versions would phase out direct payments to farmers. But they would increase subsidies for federally subsidized crop insurance.

Calling the crop insurance program "obscene," Olsen notes: "There's no income limit for this subsidy: The vast majority of this taxpayer money goes to farmers who make in excess of $250,000 a year." Private companies selling this insurance enjoy a largely risk-free investment because the government pays them about 20 percent of the premium cost.

"Every problem conservatives complain about in food stamps is even worse in crop insurance," Olsen writes.

Let's talk about food stamps. It is true that the program has grown fourfold since 2000. This reflects a weak economy for low-wage workers but also long-term structural change in the nature of jobs. That's a fancy way of saying high-paying manual jobs are going away. The working poor are getting poorer, and there are more of them.

Do food stamps encourage dependency? The vast majority of the beneficiaries are in families with children or are elderly or disabled. Many have lost their jobs, but more than half who can work do work. That includes families with children.

Is there fraud in the food stamps program? Yes, there is. Go after the cheats.

But there's fraud in every program, including the farm program. In North Carolina alone, U.S. agents uncovered a criminal ring working a crop insurance scam. The participants were tobacco farmers, insurance agents and claims adjusters. The cost to U.S. taxpayers: almost $100 million.

Here you have people defrauding a program that already legalizes a taxpayer rip-off. Yes, let's split the food stamps and the farm program.

Froma Harrop, Creators Syndicate, 5777 W. Century Blvd., Suite 700, Los Angeles, CA, 90045.

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