November 29, 2001

November 29, 2001 | Commentary on Federal Budget

Farm Subsidies: Parental Guidance Needed

From the "father of our country" to the current resident of the White House, virtually every American president has been forced -- at some point -- to assume a stern, parental role in dealing with Congress.

Typically, this occurs when members of Congress let the "power of the purse" go to their heads. Whether they're being pressured by constituents (or campaign contributors) or are simply giddy at the sight of federal surpluses, lawmakers stand ready to open the spending floodgates at almost any opportunity.

President Bush already has stepped in once to provide parental supervision for reckless Congressional spenders. He threatened to veto efforts to load the anti-terrorism package with billions in highly questionable "victims' assistance" spending, giving responsible lawmakers the support -- and the political backbone -- to keep good budget sense from being eclipsed by visceral emotion.

But given this example of White House firmness, many Americans -- perhaps especially World Trade Center widows and displaced workers -- may wonder why President Bush so far has failed to show the same kind of determined, principled leadership in the case of the farm bill.

The "Farm Security Act" (cynically renamed just last month) would lard already generous farm subsidies with an extra $69 billion over the next decade -- a 64 percent hike in agricultural handouts.

This huge package does nothing to strengthen national security. It does almost nothing to help small family farmers -- the intended beneficiaries. It simply constitutes one more brazen raid on the pocketbooks of American taxpayers to aid the well-off.

Considering the Agriculture Department predicts farm incomes will hit all-time highs this year and existing subsidies won't expire until next year, it's fair to ask "why now?"

It so happens that pundits predict control of the House next year may well be decided by the rural vote. This, in turn, led seasoned pols of both parties to move that constituency to the front of the line of those who hoped to benefit from the then-bulging surplus.

Since then, the surplus has evaporated, a recession has set in and the nation has gone to war. But while "everything changed" for most Americans on Sept. 11, the political imperative inside the Beltway remains untouched. As Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., explained with startling candor, "The money is in the budget now. If we do not use the money … it is very likely not going to be available next year."

So much for "needs-based" budgeting.

But the worst part of this is that the subsidy programs don't work as we intend them to. They deliver not one thin dime to the vast majority (60 percent) of America's farmers. Instead, they lavish dollars on Fortune 500 companies and millionaire "gentlemen farmers" -- hardly the sort to be swayed by federal handouts of "a few thousand here, a few thousand there."

Scottie Pippen, who will earn $18.1 million this year playing basketball for the Portland Trail Blazers, stands to receive a bonus on the more than $100,000 in government subsidies he has pocketed over the last five years not to grow crops on his Arkansas farm. Others "just getting by" with federal farm aid include Sam Donaldson, Ted Turner and David Rockefeller, a former chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and grandson of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

And here's a shocker: Many lawmakers who vote on the farm committees for huge subsidy hikes just happen to have farm investments that will make out quite well -- to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars -- under the proposed subsidy "enhancements."

Congress badly needs a father figure, someone to "just say no" to a farm bill that pairs bad policy with outrageously wasteful spending. It needs a return to intelligent farm policy, which does indeed exist. Indeed, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., introduced a worthwhile bill earlier this year. For one thing, it would have steered commodity support programs toward need rather than acreage. That bill was summarily trampled by lawmakers stampeding to fill the federal agricultural trough to overflowing.

Lugar's bill deserves a second look. Meantime, if President Bush is truly determined to lead wisely in these difficult times, he needs to send a message to Congress that is both loud and clear: Without real reforms and a sharp cutback in costs, the farm bill will be put out to pasture.

Stuart M. Butler is vice president for domestic and economic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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