Ryan’s Plan for Farm Subsidies

I thought I would add some detail to the posts my colleagues have already written on Congressman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisc.) 2012 budget resolution.

Interestingly – and, I would argue, appropriately – the agriculture stuff appears in the “Ending Corporate Welfare” section of the plan, most of  it on page 36. After outlining the ways that farming America is doing well, Ryan’s plan would cut almost $30 billion (or 20 percent of projected outlays) over the next 10 years from farm subsidies (direct payments, currently costing about $5 billion per year) and crop insurance subsidies. Cuts will also reportedly fall on nutrition and conservation programs, but I will let my colleagues weigh in on those.

The focus on crop insurance is encouraging, because crop insurance is an increasingly important part of U.S. farm policy, especially in recent years when commodity prices have been high: high prices reduce the amount of money taxpayers spend on commodity payments, but increases crop insurance premiums, which we all subsidize. They now cost about $6 billion, or more than commodity payments.  And, as the blueprint points out, surely farmers “should assume the same kind of responsibility for assuming risk that other businesses do.” Well played, Congressman.

One point on where the cuts fall on the commodity payments side: As a free-marketeer, I acknowledge that direct payments are less market-distorting than price-linked payments, and they are less (although not fully) questionable under World Trade Organization rules.  If we are going to shovel money to farmers, in other words, sending unconditional welfare checks is the least distorting way to do it. But there is no money to raid from the price-linked programs because of high prices, so if savings are to be found, we need to raid the direct payment cookie jar. And, really, with $7 corn and red ink from here to eternity, surely this is an ideal time to wean farmers off of the government teat.

Reactions from the farmers’ friends, by the way? Predictable. The Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee dismissed the blueprint’s plans for agriculture as “simply suggestions” and that the Agriculture Committee will write the 2012 Farm Bill, thankyouverymuch. (Ryan himself said that the cuts should start in 2012, implying that the Farm Bill schedule should go ahead as planned).

The National Farmers Union spoke the usual blather about Americans spending less of their income on food than in other nations (perhaps because we are, you know, richer?) for the “safest, most abundant, most affordable food supply in the world,” which has been the favorite line of the farm lobby for years now.  The Corn Growers and the National Cotton Council joined them in trotting out variations of the new favorite talking point, about how agriculture has already taken a hit from cuts to crop insurance and that cuts to agriculture’s budget should be no larger than cuts to other areas. 

The blueprint is not my ideal plan, to be sure. That plan would have a line in it about removing the federal government once and for all from all aspects of the agricultural market, including by disbanding the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  It would at least include something about disbanding the production- and price-determined subsidies, so we’re not all on the hook again if prices fall. But it is a good start.