Ever since Bill Clinton and Congressional Republicans reformed welfare in the 1990s, there was no competition for the biggest government handout program, it was the farm bill. Yet this program, which funnels most of its dollars to middle income and rich farmland owners, is protected in Congress by conservative lawmakers including Idaho’s congressional delegation.
Congress is rewriting the bill again and its looking to expand the subsidies to more farmers. It remains a fascinating study of how political reality trumps ideology.
The Idaho Statesman and three other Idaho newspapers and three television stations did a series on Rural Idaho in 2001, the last time the bill was up for authorization. When we quoted House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, whose family has long been a recipient of farm subsidies, calling them “welfare,” many of his Republican allies gasped at his honest appraisal.
Federal farm price supports began in the 1920s and grew in the New Deal into one of the federal government’s most ambitious subsidy programs. It was designed to keep farm prices stable and food prices low.
It helped make the American agricultural system a model for the world and also kept the economy of rural America stable even as it played a smaller and smaller role in American life. The Farm Bill of 1985 changed the formula for subsidies so that truly small farmers no longer could survive without outside income. Eventually they faded into the landscape and were replaced in the farm workplace by nonvoting migrants.
Republicans in western and plains states have always supported farm programs, but until the 1990s, they always couched their support in the hope that farm programs eventually would be unnecessary, if the federal government would only develop trade and food policies that would allow farmers to thrive in the free market and cut regulation the subsidies would become unnecessary, they said..
They finally put the ideology into law in 1996 with the Freedom to Farm Act. The law increased farm subsidies and removed most of the requirements to limit what crops could be grown where. When world crop prices dove in the late 1990s, the program turned into an obvious failure.
Congress had to remove the phase-outs and essentially keep the dole coming, no matter if the land was farmed or not. In some states, such as Montana, half of all farm income came in the mail from the federal government to upper middle class farmers, many of whom had sold their equipment.
No longer was it seriously tied to price supports. And our generosity with farmers was actually hurting our ability to get international trade deals.
When the last farm bill was passed in 2001, few of the disparities were cured, although it did shift more of the money to conservation and environmental programs. This at least meant that some of the money was being spent on a public purpose.
In the end the bill cost a whopping $171 billion. Before it was even signed reluctantly by President Bush, Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives were bemoaning it as a farm welfare bill and trying to hang its passage on Farm State Democrats, such as Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
All of Idaho’s Republicans supported it. In fact, House Republicans from the South and the West forced Congress to approve the biggest subsidies for the richest farmers. They used the old rhetoric about trade policies and getting the government out of farming. But they knew it would be hard to repeat their budget-busting victory, so they authorized the program for 10 years instead of the usual five.
Farm prices have risen since then and the cost for the program has dropped. But the basic ideological problem for conservatives remains the same: a majority of subsidies go to farms with average incomes of $200,000 and owners with a net worth of almost $2 million.
That sounds high but a farm with a net worth of only 2 million these days, when houses are going for $400,000 and more in the Boise foothills, is not that big. Still it’s hard to argue these folks are needy.
Yet the Farm Bill offers the federal government a great opportunity to help make farmers partners in land and water conservation and wildlife preservation. Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, who is on the Agriculture Committee, emphasizes these programs as he helps hammer out a new bill.
He’s also co-sponsor of a provision to expand the program with up to $2 billion for specialty crops like potatoes, cherries, table grapes, apples, carrots, onions and seed crops, all big in Idaho. Sen. Larry Craig also played a role in the expansion, though his staff won’t talk about it with the Idaho Statesman.
If you interested in the issue one of the most interesting website’s is a database developed by the Environmental Working Group . It tells you who’s getting farm subsidies and for what. You can type in a farmer and find out how much he’s getting.