December 27, 2001

December 27, 2001 | Commentary on Federal Budget

Down on the Farm Bill

Other than being rich and famous, what do David Rockefeller, Ted Turner, Sam Donaldson and Scottie Pippen have in common?

They all feed at the public trough.

More precisely, they collect subsidies from the federal farm program, as do at least 14 members of Congress. They grow, or agree not to grow, the "right" crops -- the corn, wheat, rice, cotton and soybeans that eat up 90 percent of subsidy dollars. The farmers foolish enough to produce the "wrong" ones -- poultry, eggs, cattle, nuts (with the exception of peanuts) and most vegetables -- get nothing from Uncle Sam.

The subsidies don't all go to rich people, however. Some go to rich corporations. Chevron, with revenues of $5.2 billion in 2000, received $260,223 between 1996 and 2000. John Hancock Life Insurance, with $9 billion in annual revenues, raked in $211,368.

Why should multi-millionaire hobby farmers and large, well-heeled corporations get lavish federal handouts while most family farms get nothing but a tax bill? It's because the playing field is tilted: The top 10 percent of farm subsidy recipients collect two-thirds of the money, and the bottom 80 percent get just one-sixth. In fact -- by design -- subsidies go to the biggest, most profitable farms.

Take Rockefeller, grandson of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller and former chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank. From 1996 to 2000, he received $352,187 from the government for the corn, wheat and soybeans grown on his family farm in Hudson, N.Y.

Turner, worth more than $6 billion, reeled in $176,077 in federal handouts over the same period. And Pippen, who will make $18.1 million this season playing basketball for the Portland Trail Blazers, got $131,575 to not grow crops on his Arkansas farm.

Not surprisingly, just as many hardscrabble farmers live inside the Beltway.

Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, has rung up more than $750,000 in subsidies, placing him in the top fifth of the top 1 percent of subsidy recipients. Rep. Doug Ose, R-Calif., the 22nd richest member of Congress, has collected $149,000 in rice subsidies. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, with a net worth of $7 million, has pocketed nearly $50,000.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, owns one-ninth of a family farm that has received $351,085 in subsidies. With refreshing candor, though, she admits that the $10,000 check she gets as her share is "not critical to my sustenance or my sustainability."

Now Congress is trying to open the spigot even wider.

In October, a full year before the current farm legislation will expire, the House passed the "Farm Security Act of 2001." It was originally labeled the "Agriculture Act of 2001," but members somehow divined that this peculiar exercise in "trickle-up" economics was a matter of national security. They plan to reconcile their bill early next year with a similarly misguided version produced by the Senate.

Why jam this budget buster (calling for $73 billion on top of the $95 billion already approved for farm subsidies next year) through now, with a war on and the projected surpluses of the summer just as gone as the summer itself? Brace yourself for more candor. "The money is in the budget now," says Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "If we do not use the money, it is very likely not going to be available next year."

Think about that the next time you hear lawmakers say we can't afford another tax cut. The money's "available" for them. Why not for the rest of us?

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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Related Issues: Federal Budget