Saturday, July 28, 2007

Denny Rehberg and the farm bill

The old saying is that a bill is like sausage -- you really don't want to watch it being made or know what's in it.

Well, that goes doubly every time a farm bill comes around in the U.S. Congress.

A populist-minded rural Montanan would probably think that the point to a farm bill is helping mom and pop operations stay in business.

Someone concerned about national security would assume that it is about making sure that we keep healthy all of the critical agricultural industries necessary to the smooth operation of our economy at a time when we might be cut off from foreign imports. This means deciding on which segments of our agricultural economy are most essential and which are in danger of being put out of business by foreign competitors -- and it means using protective tariffs and the like to keep those critical segments of the agricultural industry going.

Those same individuals concerned about national security might think a farm bill would have a major place for encouraging diverse farming practices that would minimize susceptibility to diseases (natural or introduced by enemies of the U.S.) that could sweep through monocultured or genetically engineered crops.

Someone concerned about "keeping the economy growing" might think that the farm bill should be about doing whatever necessary to accomplish that task -- who knows exactly what this might mean, other than that it probably won't mean doing anything to help American agriculture.

Yet someone else (e.g. politicians) might think it should be about keeping food as cheap as possible for the most voters so they can keep getting elected.

Some forward-thinking individuals might think it should be about encouraging farming practices that will preserve the health of soil and water for generation after generation to come.

A granola or two (or a "crunchy-con") might think that in addition to the previous item, a farm bill would concentrate on encouraging farming practices that concentrate on quality in the food supply -- which is going to mean, at least in part, encouraging organic or semi-organic practices that minimize the input of potentially harmful chemicals.

The list could go on.

But what is the farm bill really about? Well, first of all, 2/3rd of the budget (yes, you read that right) has nothing to do with agriculture or farming at all, but rather goes to food stamps and other nutritional programs (and not all of them for ones here in the U.S.) That amounts to $187 billion out of the total of $280 billion -- compared to $42 billion that goes to help farmers.

The bill does some good things. It lowers the income cap for those who can receive farm subsidies to $1 million. This is a one-size-fits-all approach that doubtless will have some major flaws -- not all segments of the farming industry are the same, and not all parts of the country are the same. The news reports generally don't make clear what they are talking about -- gross incomes, adjusted gross incomes, or net incomes. It makes a big difference. And what about family farms that are corporations, where, say, several brothers and a father pool resources -- they might jointly generate a very large gross income, but it would be deceiving.

But still, the practice of big corporate farms being on the government dole is a distasteful one that needs to end.

Our Congressman, Denny Rehberg, was right to hold back on voting for this bill in hopes that some of the worse aspects of the bill might be reconsidered.

A big problem was the addition of a tax on foreign corporations that have operations in the U.S. Leaving aside the question of whether it is ever wise to raise taxes, this is a tax that punishes companies who employ people in the U.S.! What kind of sense does that make? And all of that extra money went, not to farmers or agricultural programs, but to free food programs that urban Congressmen want.

And what place is there in an appropriations bill for raising taxes, anyway? Yes, we know the Democratic arguments about "closing loopholes," which basically means tax-increases for people who aren't their constituents (or at least constituents that they care about.)

The "nutrition coalition" that Sen. George McGovern put together, whereby farm-state Democrats got their urban counterparts to vote for farm subsidies by bribing them with large amounts of USDA money for food stamps has turned into the tail wagging the dog.

Or, to switch metaphors, what started at one point as the proverbial camel sticking his nose in the tent now has the camel taking over the inside of the tent while its original occupant is sleeping outside on the sand.

There is no sense in calling this a farm bill when only 1/3 goes to agricultural programs and less than 15% goes to farmers. Feed the hungry? Fine. Put it in a welfare bill and vote on who should be eligible and how much should be spent.

But we thought that the topics we were discussing were farmers, farming, and agriculture.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, and in the midst of all this money are how many government employees drawing fine salaries, excellent benefits and looking forward to a cushy retirement? Certainly they have a far more certain life than either the food stamp recipients or the actual farmers. How many million of this is spent on administration?