Tag: farm subsidies

Rep. Jeff Flake to Appropriations

In-coming House Speaker John Boehner’s endorsement of Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) for a seat on the chamber’s appropriations committee means that it’s probably a done deal. Flake is one of the few policymakers who actually lives up to the fiscal conservative label. Thus, Flake’s appointment to a committee that many members think only exists to increase spending on special interests would be welcome news.

Boehner also endorsed a suggestion from Rep. Jeff Kingston (R-GA), who has mounted a dark-horse campaign to chair the appropriations committee, to create a subcommittee focused on investigating federal programs. Flake would chair this subcommittee, and according to a release on his website, he has already lined up worthy targets like Head Start and farm subsidies.

How much success will Flake have within the committee?

The New York Times quotes Flake as boldly saying, “It has been a favor factory for years, and now it is going to become a slaughterhouse.” At the same time, Flake acknowledged to Politico that putting a few anti-spenders on appropriations isn’t going to be enough:

Flake said the conservatives that Boehner wants to get on the committee will be “marginalized” if they’re scattered throughout the panel.

“It’s not enough just to have a few going on the committee,” he said. “They could be dispersed among the subcommittees that are forgotten.”

I recently warned the House Republican leadership against serving tea party voters re-heated meatloaf by allowing old-school spenders to dominate the committees. Getting Jeff Flake on appropriations is a step in the right direction, but his appointment can’t be a token gesture. Anti-spenders like Flake will need support from their leadership to succeed because they sure won’t be making friends with the big-spending old bulls.

Quick Link on the Tea Party and Ag Subsidies

I wrote last week about my concerns regarding the fiscal conservatism of tea party candidates when it comes to farm programs. Edward Lotterman, writing in the (Minnesota) Pioneer Press Online, asks the key question:

If you campaign on a platform of lower taxes, smaller government, no budget deficits and ending government redistribution of income to small interest groups, how on Earth can you vote for continued spending on federal commodity programs?

Read the whole thing here.

Republican Hypocrisy Watch

Last week I urged readers to be on the lookout for Republicans seeking to exclude farm subsidies from any cuts they plan to make to federal spending. And it seems the first example of “smaller government for thee, but not for me” has been provided by incoming congresswoman Vicki Hartzler, who campaigned on a Tea Party-ish platform and defeated long-time congressman Ike Skelton (in Missouri’s 4th congressional district).

Ms. Hartzler calls Margaret Thatcher her role model because she “took principled stands.” (As, indeed, she often did.) Ms. Hartzler also says economic issues – cutting government spending, complete repeal of the health care bill – are her main concern. But read the fine-print in this article from the St. Louis Beacon:

Hartzler says cutting spending is a top personal priority; she wants to roll back non-discretionary funding levels to 2008 levels, before the economic stimulus and TARP programs. …

The congresswoman-elect would exempt some of the federal budget’s high-cost categories – including Social Security, Medicare and the Pentagon budget – from cutbacks. But she would not exempt agricultural subsidies,* another major area of federal spending popular in rural areas such as west-central Missouri’s Fourth District. Among the many farms to receive such subsidies is the 1,700-acre Hartzler farm, which – according to the Environmental Working Group’s “Farm Subsidy Database” – received about $774,000 in federal payments (mainly commodity subsidies for corn, soybeans and wheat) from 1995 through 2009.

“Everything should be on the table,” she says. While she says some agriculture programs represent a “national defense issue” because they help guarantee that “we have a safety net to make sure we have food security in our country,” Hartzler adds: “Should we continue the CRP [Conservation Reserve] program, where you pay farmers to not plant ground and set it aside for awhile? I’m not sure. The time for that may be over.” [emphasis added]

Let’s be clear about what Ms. Hartzler is talking about here. Those “some” agricultural programs she says should be guaranteed on “national defense” grounds (see below) are what we commonly think about as “farm subsidies” – payments to farmers to produce certain commodities, whether those payments are funded by taxpayers or consumersThey encourage overproduction and thus alienate our trade partners, complicate efforts to make global trade freer, harm poor farmers abroad and damage America’s reputation in the process. They cost us billions of dollars a year.

She is, on the other hand, open to cutting farm programs that at least pretend to have environmental benefits. I’m not commenting here on the validity of those sorts of ”public goods” claims, and of course I am not conceding that the federal government should be involved in them. But I think most reasonable  people would agree that they are less economically damaging than traditional farm subsidies.  In other words, in the hierarchy of damage, and therefore in the hierarchy of what should be cut first, I would put farm subsidies ahead of the CRP. And I fail, in any event, to see how anyone calling themselves a fiscal conservative can promote the idea of excluding a priori that which we commonly think of as “farm subsidies.”

[Also, can we please abandon once and for all this nonsense idea that we need farm subsidies to have food security? Appeals to “national defense” are disingenuous and cynical. They are also belied (rather obviously) by the fact that we see abundant supplies of fruit, vegetables and other horticultural goods even though those products attract no subsidies directly. The best way to ensure a food security is to ensure open markets, so food can flow from where it is abundant to where it is scarce. Self-sufficiency is a misguided policy, as the experience of North Korea can attest.]

So, in summary, when Ms. Hartzler says “everything should be on the table”, she basically means “not much, and certainly nothing that might harm powerful special interests that I care about.” I lost count of the number of Republican politicians being interviewed during the campaign and on election night talking about the need for “across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending” as their fiscal plan. Most if not all of them emphasized that so-called mandatory spending (which includes some farm subsidies) would be exempt from their cuts. I’m sorry, but I cannot take seriously the “fiscal conservative” credentials of any politician who adopts such a line.

*It appears, judging from the quote below, that she would indeed exempt farm subsidies from cuts, even if other farm programs would be on the chopping block. I’m going to assume here the reporter was using the term “farm subsidies” in an imprecise manner.

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.

The Two GOPs

As the fall elections approach, two factions within the congressional GOP have emerged. The first faction, which generally controls the Republican leadership, is short-term oriented and just wants to return the GOP to power in Congress. Riding the wave of voter discontent over the government’s finances is a means to an end – the end being power.

The second, and considerably smaller faction, is more ideas driven and views the upcoming election as an opportunity to push for substantive governmental reforms. Whereas the “power first faction” offers platitudes about smaller government, the “ideas first faction” isn’t afraid to offer relatively bold suggestions for confronting the federal government’s unsustainable spending.

The ideas first faction is willing to publicly recognize that runaway entitlement spending must be reigned in and offer solutions to address the problem. Representatives Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, and Paul Ryan, for example, aren’t shying away from advocating a phase-out of the current Social Security system, which is headed for bankruptcy. In contrast, the power first faction lambasted Democrats for wanting to “cut Medicare” during the recent legislative battle over Obamacare.

In Ryan’s case, he has given the power first faction heartburn by pushing his “Roadmap for America’s Future,” which confronts the entitlement crisis head-on. Although Ryan’s Roadmap is not the ideal from a limited government standpoint, it’s a credible offering with ideas worth discussing. Even though the Ryan plan has received some favorable notice by the mainstream media, the power first faction would probably prefer Paul and his Roadmap went away.

From the Washington Post:

Of the 178 Republicans in the House, 13 have signed on with Ryan as co-sponsors.

Ryan’s proposals have created a bind for GOP leaders, who spent much of last year attacking the Democrats’ health-care legislation for its measures to trim Medicare costs. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has alternately praised Ryan and emphasized that his ideas are not those of the party.

Ryan has not helped to make it easy for his leaders. He is a loyal Republican, but he is also perhaps the GOP’s leading intellectual in Congress and occasionally seems to forget that he is a politician himself.

At a recent appearance touting the Roadmap at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, someone asked Ryan why more conservatives weren’t behind his budget plan. “They’re talking to their pollsters,” Ryan answered, “and their pollsters are saying, ‘Stay away from this. We’re going to win an election.’”

His remarks illustrate the tension among Republicans over their fall agenda. Some strategists say the GOP should focus on attacking the Democrats; others want the party to offer a detailed governing plan.

Ryan’s ideas can be contrasted with those of the House Republican Conference Committee, which is a key power first organization. The HRCC just released a platitude-filled August recess packet for Republican House members to recite in talking to their constituents. Entitled “Treading Boldly,” the cover prominently features Teddy Roosevelt, which should immediately send chills down the spines of anyone believing in limited government.

The document is not “bold.” Take for example the five proposals to “Reduce the Size of Government”:

  • Freeze Congress’ Budget. This has populist appeal but does virtually nothing to reduce the size of government. The legislative branch will spend approximately $5.4 billion this year. That’s less than the federal government spends in a day.
  • Eliminate Unnecessary or Duplicative Programs. This proposal is so vacuous that even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports it. If the GOP isn’t willing to name a dozen or so substantial “unnecessary” programs to eliminate, then this promise can’t be taken seriously.
  • Audit the Government for Ways to Save. Yawn. Isn’t that what the $600 million Government Accountability Office does? The document says “Congress should initiate a review of every federal program and provide strict oversight to uncover and eliminate waste and duplication.” Nothing says “not serious” like calling for the federal government to eliminate “waste.” Waste comes part and parcel with a nearly $4 trillion government that can spend other’s people money on pretty much anything it wants to.

To be fair, there are sound proposals contained in the document such as privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But on the issue of entitlements, the HRCC punts:

The current budget process focuses only on about 40 percent of the budget and just the near-term – usually the next twelve months. We know that we have significant medium and long-term fiscal challenges fueled by the demographic changes in our country. The Government Accountability Office estimates that we have $76 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Rather than simply ignoring these challenges, Congress should reform its budget process to ensure that Congress begins making the decisions that are necessary to update our entitlement programs to secure them for today’s seniors and save them for future generations.

Had the Republicans not swept into office in 1994 on a promise to reduce government only to make it bigger, the power first faction’s “trust us” argument might be more credible. However, given that it already views the GOP’s ideas first faction as skunks at the party, voters who are expecting a new Republican congressional majority to downsize government might not want to hold their breath.

Rand Paul Not So Hardcore On Farm Subsidies

Rand Paul, after setting the newswires alight with his controversial stance on the Civil Rights Act, is busy touting his “moderate” credentials.

Moderate, in this case, being a euphemism for “laughably timid.”

In a recent interview with a Kentucky radio station, Paul rejected the charge of his political opponent that he was opposed to farm subsidies. Not true, sayeth Paul. He is “much more moderate than that.”

According to an article in yesterday’s  Lexington Herald-Leader, Paul’s less-than-radical view on farm subsidies is that, well, maybe dead people should not receive them:

Let’s just agree that we will get rid of subsidies for dead farmers first,” he said.

After that, Paul said, the government should restrict subsidies to farmers who make more than $2 million a year.

Paul said 2,007 farmers last year whose income was greater than $2 million received subsidies.

“Let’s agree that maybe we can cut them out,” he said.

Despite his “ideologically pure” stance on the CRA, Rand Paul can compromise on issues of freedom when he wants to, for example on drug laws and gay marriage, as Tim Lee points out.  And now, apparently, he is to the left of Barack Obama (who favored a $500,000 adjusted gross income limit) when it comes to farm subsidies. Paul’s choice of when to be ideologically pure is curious indeed.

HT: Don Carr at the Environmental Working Group

Cheap Talk from a Fiscal Commissioner

The president’s fiscal reform commission started off with some breathtaking chutzpah from Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND):

Rising federal debt is like a tsunami that could swamp the country at any moment…Our economic strength and security is on the line. Now is the time to act. And we need everyone, Democrats and Republicans, working together on a solution.

If now is the time to act, why did Sen. Conrad just pass a budget plan out of his committee that promises massive spending, deficits, and debt?

From a transcript of Conrad’s opening remarks:

I personally believe that saying, ‘everything is on the table’ is critical. I hope none of us will take things off the table prematurely, because I think it is clear it’s going to take dramatic changes on the spending side of the ledger, and it’s going to take changes on the revenue side of the ledger.

Does Sen. Conrad consider farm subsidies to be on the table? In February, the Wall Street Journal exposed Conrad as a hypocritical big spender. For example, Conrad doesn’t miss an opportunity to shower his farm constituents with federal largesse:

He has been a defender of the state’s grain farmers ever since [his election to the Senate in 1986]. He voted last April against a proposal to cap federal payments to the nation’s farmers at $250,000 per farmer per year, a measure that Mr. Conrad criticized as disastrous but that supporters said would have saved $1 billion a year.

He also helped draft a five-year, $300 billion farm bill in 2008 that boosted overall farm subsidies. The bill created a $3.8 billion emergency “trust fund” for farmers who lose crops or livestock to natural disasters, which was Mr. Conrad’s idea. Since 2008, North Dakota ranchers have received $23 million under the fund, second only to Texas.

What about federal entitlement programs, which represent the biggest budgetary threat going forward?

In 2003, Mr. Conrad joined most Democratic senators to support Mr. Bush’s plan to provide Medicare prescription-drug coverage to seniors, at a cost of around $40 billion a year. The plan required Congress to scrap the spending controls Mr. Conrad once championed. Republicans won the votes of Mr. Conrad and other rural senators by agreeing to expand the program by pumping $25 billion more into rural hospitals and doctors over 10 years.

Then there’s that health care “reform” bill Conrad just voted for, which will cost an estimated $2.6 trillion once fully implemented.

Not to be outdone, the president had his own galling comments:

Flanked by the co-chairmen of the new commission, Obama challenged the two parties to join in taking a “hard look” at the growing gap between what the government spends and raises in revenue, and to “think more about the next generation than the next election.”

The “growing gap” the president cites is one of his own doing. The following chart shows the projected gap between spending and revenues according to the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the president’s latest budget proposal:

The chart shows that revenues are already set to consume a larger share of the economy. The problem is that spending is on an elevator going up.

The politicians with the most power in Washington are precisely the ones pretending that they are powerless to steer the nation away from a looming fiscal disaster. Their claims are total, utter, complete nonsense. Both Obama and Conrad could have proposed budgets this year that actually cut spending to reduce the deficit. Both chose not to. They are the ones fueling the “tsunami.” They are the ones who don’t have the guts to cut off this generation’s subsidy recipients for the sake of the next generation. It’s that simple.