Farmers With Benefits

| 5/22/2013 5:00:00 PM

This article originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on April 19, 2013. It is reprinted here with permission.

American farmers did well in 2012, to say the least. They benefited from record-high commodity prices, burgeoning organic produce markets and high sale prices for farmland. As they have for two decades, farm families took home more annual income—about $20,000 more on average—than non-farm families. And they could count on many friends in Congress: While facing a “fiscal cliff,” the uncertain sustainability of entitlement programs and the near certainty of tax increases, members of both parties came together around bills that would have spent at least $950 billion on agricultural subsidies over the next 10 years, an increase of more than $300 billion from the most recent (2008) farm bill.

While gridlock and the press of other issues resulted in Congress deciding to kick the can until September of this year, the fundamental contours of the debate remain the same. Most conversation in Congress revolves around how much federal largess to farmers should grow, and hardly anybody questions whether or not the subsidies ought to continue.Farm subsidies are not always fairly distributed.

The coming debate over a major farm bill, and the programs intended to benefit farmers in particular, matters not just for the financial stakes, although they’re significant. It’s also a test of the Republican Party’s mettle when it comes to dealing with the size, scope and negative consequences of federal activity. If the GOP and, for that matter, Democrats honestly concerned about good governance cannot hold the line against ever-growing subsidies to farmers in the bill, they cannot claim much credibility to reform other parts of the federal edifice. Quite simply, the current farm bill, now approaching its first round of major committee discussions, ought to be a crucible for anybody concerned about the country’s finances.

That said, support for farm programs runs deep. For roughly five decades, farm subsidy programs have expanded as a result of a deeply corrupt log-rolling agreement that folds subsidies to farmers into a massive bill with food and nutrition programs for the poor. As a result, urban, mostly Democratic members of Congress have supported significant subsidies for farmers in return for rural, generally Republican members’ support of programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known by its former name of food stamps.

As an exercise in client politics, there’s no doubt this bargain has “worked.” Not only do both types of programs garner votes for their supporters, but SNAP and more than a dozen other federal nutrition programs create a larger market for the products that farmers grow. In raw dollar terms, it’s pretty clear that the nutrition programs and their liberal supporters get the better deal. The current farm bills devote more than 75 cents of every dollar in the bill to them. (Of course, the nutrition programs also have far more direct beneficiaries.)

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