Tag: agriculture subsidies

Senate Spares Rural Development Subsidies

An amendment to a Senate appropriations bill introduced by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that would have reduced funding for rural development subsidies at the Department of Agriculture by $1 billion was easily voted down today. Only 13 Republicans voted to cut the program. Thirty-two Republicans joined all Democrats in voting to spare it, including minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), ranking budget committee member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and tea party favorite Marco Rubio (R-FL).

This was a business-as-usual vote that will receive virtually no media attention. However, it is a vote that symbolizes just how unserious most policymakers are when it comes to making specific spending cuts. That’s to be expected with the Democrats. On the other hand, Republicans generally talk a good game about the need to cut spending and they rarely miss an opportunity to criticize the Obama administration for its reckless profligacy. Republicans instead fall back on their support of a Balanced Budget Amendment and other reforms like biennial budgeting.

I think most Republicans are in favor of a BBA because they believe it gets them off the hook of having to name exactly what they’d cut. There are several reasons why Republican policymakers won’t get specific: 1) they really don’t want to cut spending; 2) they’re afraid of cheesing off special interests and constituents who benefit from government programs; 3) they’re more concerned with being in power and getting reelected; 4) they’re just plain ignorant of, or disinterested in, the particulars of government programs.

As for biennial budgeting, Republicans would have us believe that appropriating money every other year will give policymakers more time to conduct oversight of government programs. I think it’s another cop-out. Coburn’s office put out plenty of information on the problems associated with USDA rural development subsidies (see here). A Cato essay on rural development subsidies provides more information, including findings from the Government Accountability Office that are readily available to policymakers.

(Note: I worked for both Jeff Sessions and Tom Coburn.)

Tuesday Agriculture Links

Some interesting links on agriculture in the news today.

First, a terrific front-page article in the New York Times, about what my friend Vince Smith so accurately calls the “bait-and-switch” farmers are proposing in their offer to give up direct payments (subsidies that flow to farmers regardless of prices or production) in exchange for a new revenue insurance program.  As Vince so rightly points out, because the new revenue targets will be based on today’s current record crop prices, “If farm prices move back towards what are widely viewed as more normal levels than their current levels, farmers will be compensated for going back to business as usual.”  Vince blogs here about the proposed new revenue assurance program, and how it could end up costing us just as much as the current set of programs.

Farmers and their congressional sponsors are still blathering about “proportionality,” essentially saying that they should not have to contribute any more to budget cuts than any other area of the federal government. Here, for example, is a corn farmer, towing the party line:

“We are very much aware of the budgetary constraints of the federal government,” said Garry Niemeyer, an Illinois farmer who is president of the National Corn Growers Association. “We want to do our part as corn growers to help resolve those issues, but we only want to do our proportional part. We don’t want to have everything taken out on us.” [emphasis added]

This is wrong-headed. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: “proportionality” implies that everything the federal government currently does is equally valid. That is nonsense.  Some programs are legitimate, some less so. Some—like farm subsidies—not at all. Spending cuts should be made on the basis of legitimacy, not by some abstract formula equally applied. We should be reshaping (in a downward direction) the federal government here, not trimming a topiary hedge.

Second, Bloomberg.com has a good overview on the current state of the negotiations between the Congressional agriculture committees and the deficit-reduction supercommittee regarding the cuts to farm programs. The leaders of the agriculture panels have written a letter to the supercommittee, saying that cuts to agriculture programs should be limited to $23 billion and those cuts ”should absolve the programs in our jurisdiction from any further reduction.” So there.

Finally, here are Senators Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.)  on the wasteful and expensive sugar program.

Distortions versus Outlays

My friend Gawain Kripke at Oxfam posted a very good blog entry yesterday on the proposed cuts to agriculture subsidies. In it, Gawain elaborates on a point that I made briefly in a previous post about Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget plan: that cutting so-called direct payments—those that flow to farmers regardless of how much or even whether they produce—is only part of the picture.

Here’s Gawain’s main point:

Most farm subsidies are price-dependent, meaning they are bigger if prices are low and smaller if prices are high. Prices are hitting historic highs for many commodities, which means the bulk of these subsidies are not paying out very much money. Over time, the price-dependent subsidies have been the bulk of farm subsidies. They also distort agriculture markets by encouraging farmers to depend on payments from the government rather managing their business and hedging risks.

So—these days there’s only about $5b in farm payments being made, and these payments are not considered as damaging in international trade terms because they are not based on prices…

Still, Congress will probably make some cuts. But these cuts won’t really be reform and won’t produce much long-term savings unless they tackle the price-dependent subsidies. Taking a whack at those subsidies could save taxpayers money later and make sure our farm programs don’t hurt poor farmers in developing countries. (emphasis added)

I will be delighted if direct payments are abolished, thereby saving American taxpayers about $5 billion a year. But we should not be content with that, nor should we fool ourselves that we have tackled the main distortions in agricultural markets. If the price- and production-linked programs are not abolished, too, then taxpayers and international markets will pay the price if/when commodity prices fall.

Farm Subsidies Benefit Landowners

Almost half of America’s farmland is operated by someone other than the owner. Critics of farm subsidies often point to examples of famous wealthy landowners receiving handouts as a reason to end the federal government’s agriculture gravy train. Notable recipients have included Ted Turner, Larry Flynt, Charles Schwab, and numerous members of Congress.

While policymakers justify their support for farm subsidies in the name of “protecting farmers,” a new academic study describes how landowners are often the real winners. Farm subsidies get “capitalized” into the price of farm land, pushing up land prices. As a result, those farmers who lease land from landowners at the inflated prices end up having a substantial share of their subsidy benefits effectively canceled out.

From the paper:

In all, the results confirm that government payments exert a significant effect on land values. The (marginal) rates of capitalization suggest that in the current policy context, a dollar in benefits typically raises land values by $13-$30 per acre, with the response differing substantially across different types of policies. This response certainly suggests that agents expect these benefits to be sustained for some time. In terms of the implications for the distribution of farm program benefits, our results confirm that a substantial share of the benefits is captured by landowners.

The authors’ conclude that the rhetoric exhibited by supporters of farm subsidies doesn’t always match the reality:

Policy rhetoric often justifies Farm Bill expenditures with the argument that impoverished farmers are in need of governmental support to remain in business. This view is pervasive outside of Washington. For example, consider the annual “Farm Aid” events intended to draw attention to the plight of the American farmer. Our analysis challenges this view. We demonstrate that land owners capture substantial benefits from agricultural policy. This is particularly problematic given that in many cases land owners are distinct from the farmers whose plight we are told we should be concerned with.

See this Cato essay for more on agriculture subsidies.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Farm Subsidies)

The Washington Times says that the upcoming farm bill re-write could “sow division in the GOP.” While House Republican leaders John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Kevin McCarthy voted against the 2008 farm bill, the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), is a dedicated supporter of farm subsidies.

The Times recalls Boehner’s comments on the 2008 farm bill:

“The farm bill has often been abused by politicians as a slush fund for bizarre earmarks and wasteful spending projects, and the latest version … is no different,” Mr. Boehner, then the GOP minority leader, said at the time.

It’s too bad then that the Boehner-friendly Republican Steering Committee, which decided the committee chairs, didn’t appear to blink at handing the agriculture committee gavel to a key supporter of the “slush fund.” And it’s not as if Lucas has been circumspect in his intentions. Lucas’s agriculture issues section on his website, which hasn’t been updated since the Republicans took back the House, makes that perfectly clear:

As Ranking Member of the Agriculture Committee, I have long been a champion of voluntary agriculture conservation programs. During the drafting of the 2002 Farm Bill, I worked to secure the largest ever increase in programs such as Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Reserve Program, and many others. In the 2008 Farm Bill, I advocated for renewable energy provisions to be included in the farm bill which would allow rural areas to play a larger role in making the U.S. less dependent on foreign sources of energy. I am proud that the 2008 Farm Bill devotes a funding stream to renewable energy research, development, and production….

[I] will work closely with Chairman Peterson and other members of the committee to ensure that cuts are not made to agriculture producers – farmers and ranchers.

Lucas isn’t shy about touting his support from the myriad farm lobby groups either:

I have been proud to receive recognition from various agriculture groups for my work in support of their concerns. The American Farm Bureau Federation has presented me with its “Friend of Farm Bureau” award for supporting Farm Bureau issues in Congress in 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006. In both 2002 and 2003, the National Farmers Union recognized me with the “Presidential Award for Leadership” for issues important to rural America. NFU also recognized me with the “Golden Triangle Award”, which is given to those who have demonstrated outstanding leadership on issues affecting family farmers, ranchers, and rural communities. In 2002 the Oklahoma Wheat Commission presented me with their “Staff of Life” award for voting in favor of wheat growers and farmers 100 percent of the time. And for two years running, the National Association of Wheat Growers named me one of only 11 “Wheat Champion” Members of Congress for superior action in Congress in support of the wheat industry.

Last year, Lucas criticized the Obama administration for proposing some minor agriculture program cuts, including a proposal to limit direct subsidy payments to farmers with more than $500,000 in annual sales.

Frank Lucas criticized the Obama administration for merely wanting to deny farmers with a half million dollars in sales from grabbing taxpayer money, but take a look what he has to say in a section on his website on “lower taxes and government spending:”

Spending in Congress has reached historic levels during the 111th Congress. The fiscally irresponsible behavior of former Speaker Pelosi and President Obama has driven our national debt level to the point that it is almost equal to the size of our entire economy. This is unacceptable and it must stop.

I have opposed – and will continue to oppose – spending initiatives that dramatically increase the size and scope of the federal government while adding to our already massive national debt. I have long been a supporter of tax reform and will continue to fight against increases in taxes and wasteful federal spending. Congress must get back to the business of fiscal responsibility and strive for a balanced budget without raising the taxes of hard-working Americans.

Lucas must know that “taxes of hard-working Americans” are pouring into the pockets of generally high-income farm businesses at the rate of $15 billion to $35 billion annually. While Lucas may be a “Wheat Champion” he sure isn’t a Taxpayer Champion, at least not on agricultural issues.

See this Cato essay for more on agriculture subsidies.

Good Time to End Farm Subsidies

The Wall Street Journal reports that the agricultural sector is recovering nicely from the recent recession while the rest of the private sector continues to struggle. The counter-cyclical nature of some farm subsidy programs means that the taxpayer bill for the year could be cut in half to only about $12 billion.

From the article:

For many crops, prices are climbing even as big harvests pile up, a rare combination. Farmland values are up while those for some other kinds of real estate languish. Debt on the farm is manageable. Incomes are rising.

And trade, of which many Americans are growing wary, is for agriculture a boon. Asia’s economic vigor and appetites make the farm sector’s reliance on exports—once thought a vulnerability in some quarters—a plus today.

“The farm economy is coming out of the recession far faster than the general economy,” said Don Carson, a senior analyst.

The WSJ article also notes that farmers will still receive direct payments of about $5 billion for basically just being farmers. This subsidy is particularly insulting to taxpayers as the program was created in 1996 to help wean farmers off of subsidies. Instead, these “temporary” payments were turned into a permanent hand-out in 2002.

Better news for taxpayers would be the abolition of farm subsidies. While they obviously remain popular with the beneficiaries and their patrons in Washington, the general public seems to be increasingly aware that the subsidies amount to little more than legalized theft.

Of course, farm subsidy apologists will respond that the programs must be kept in place in order to cushion farm incomes when times aren’t so good. As a Cato essay on farm subsidies points out, this is nonsense:

Another point to consider is that farm households are much more diversified today and better able to deal with market fluctuations. Many farm households these days earn the bulk of their income from nonfarm sources, which creates financial stability. USDA figures show that only 38 percent of farm households consider farming their primary occupation.

Some USDA programs provide useful commercial services such as insurance. The USDA says that its insurance services are “market-based,” but if that were true, there would be no need for subsidies and the services ought to be privatized. After all, most U.S. industries pay for their own commercial services. Also, financial markets offer a wide range of tools, such as hedging and forward contracting, which can help farmers survive cycles in markets without government subsidies.

Brazil Caves

Notwithstanding the efforts of four brave congressmen, the belated concession to reality by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, and the misgivings of trade analysts including myself, it appears that the “temporary” deal struck by Brazil and the United States in April to ward off Brazil’s retaliation for WTO-illegal U.S. cotton supports is here to stay:

The government said a deal agreed between the two countries in April to head off up to $829 million in World Trade Organization-sanctioned retaliation against U.S. goods would stay in place until a new U.S. farm bill is passed [in 2012]…

“Brazil doesn’t rule out taking countermeasures at any moment,” Roberto Azevedo, Brazil’s envoy to the World Trade Organization, told reporters in Brasilia. “It is just a suspension of this right”.

He said Brazil could retaliate at any time if the United States did not uphold the agreement, but added that Brazil had no interest in retaliating.

“This process of negotiation and reform is better than retaliation that doesn’t bring benefits to anyone in Brazil’s private sector.” [Reuters]

You will recall that the deal includes about $147 million worth of taxpayers’ money given to Brazilian cotton farmers in the form of “technical assistance,” just so we can continue our own insane cotton support programs without fear of U.S. exporters (including holders of patents and copyrights) being hit by retaliatory trade barriers and unpunished piracy.

Brazil in some senses has the right idea, of course. They recognize, correctly, that retaliation in the form of increased tariffs on American imports only hurts their own consumers, hence their stated desire for “negotiation and reform” instead of santions.  But they sure do have a lot of faith in the willingness of Congress to enact reform without serious pressure from, among others, aggrieved trade partners.

I hope their faith and saint-like patience is rewarded. In the meantime, we have (at least) two more years of subsidizing Brazilan farmers in addition to our own.