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 consumers. They 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.