Editorial: Time to overhaul the farm bill


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Earlier this month, the American Farm Bureau sent a new farm bill proposal to Washington, D.C., that would cut $23 billion in spending over the next decade.

The farm bill is essentially a large collection of disparate policies that mostly focus on financial support for America’s farming industry. The current bill, passed in 2008, was extended through most of 2013 during the January fiscal-cliff negotiations. A new farm bill is usually passed every five years or so.

The bureau’s proposal is but the latest to come before Congress; in late 2012, a proposed farm bill died in the House. The Senate Agriculture Committee will begin work on its own plan in May. Time is of the essence here; if the farm bill expires, the country’s agricultural laws would revert to the most recent permanent policies, which were set in the 1940s.

Commodity-price guarantees made by the government would vanish, as would a whole host of other programs. Most notably, the failure to pass a new farm bill would effectively defund the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the program formerly known as food stamps.

It is clear that a new farm bill is needed, but the current model of farm legislation is deeply flawed. The legislative offerings from the American Farm Bureau and the Senate are bloated and overly broad. It’s time to overhaul the farm bill.

The 2008 iteration includes a smorgasbord of farm subsidies including direct payment to farmers, disaster-assistance and crop-insurance programs, and price support for various commodities such as corn and soybeans.

These policies were developed in an era in which farming was dominated not by large corporations but by individual farmers. Commodity support was intended as a safety net program to curb rural poverty. When the market couldn’t pay an adequate price to keep the farmer afloat, the government would step in and make up the difference.

Today, such farm subsidies serve as a highly regressive form of corporate welfare that is not targeted at eliminating rural poverty. Between 1995 and 2011, Iowa farmers received $23.6 billion in federal subsidies. The largest 10 percent of Iowa farms received an average of $33,626 per year over that period. At the same time, the smallest 80 percent of Iowa farms received a bit more than $1,500 per year in subsidies.

The proposed legislation from the American Farm Bureau saves $23 billion over 10 years largely by eliminating direct cash subsidies for farmers, but there is currently no viable legislation under consideration that would limit access to commodity support — by far the largest federal subsidy — to individual farmers teetering on the brink of poverty.

Much of the debate about farm subsidies is unfortunately drowned out by legislative bickering about the nutrition-assistance program. The current House budget calls for more than $160 billion in farm-bill spending cuts over a decade, $130 billion of which would be slashed from the food-assistance program.

Given that the program accounts for two-thirds of the cash outlays provided for in the 2008 farm bill, it shouldn’t be surprising that the battle for a new bill centers on a familiarly partisan welfare debate rather than an honest discussion of farm subsidies.

The food-assistance program should be dealt with outside the farm bill. An $80 billion-per-year program deserves its own permanent legislative charter and should not be used as a Trojan horse for commodity-price guarantees.

Before a new farm bill is considered, it should be stripped of its unfair subsidies, and its nutrition programs should be spun off.

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