Farm Bill: An Antiquated Relic of the Past

May 6, 2013


As the Senate prepares to move a five-year food and farm welfare bill next week and the House marches ever closer towards its May 15 committee mark up.

Today’s food and farm welfare bill is an outgrowth of Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act legislation passed by Congress in 1937. The act’s purpose was to stabilize the price of agricultural commodities and ensure that farmers received a fair price for their produce. The provisions in the legislation were likewise intended to bring order to the interstate market in agricultural produce by recognizing that maintaining an orderly market in these products was in the nation interest. In 1937 lawmakers wanted to preserve the value of agricultural assets throughout the country, as agricultural transactions were important to the national economy.

Recently an unlikely comment was made by Supreme Court Elena Kagan when she called the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 “The world’s most outdated law.”

Daniel Sumner, director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center and a professor at UC Davis, had this to say: “Riddled with market interventions and tax transfers, the U.S. farm support system should be wound down in the next farm bill, which should be the last.”

In the 50’s justifications for farm subsides might have been necessary as many farmers tended to be poor and subsidies were needed to prop up and sustain rural economies.  This is no longer true.  Since farms account for only a small percentage of rural employment, subsidies are now going to large corporations which dominate the agriculture industry.  It also might have made sense during the time of Vietnam (1960 – 1970) when the wool and mohair subsidy was put in place to ensure a supply of combat uniforms for those fighting in Vietnam.

Take away these few isolated exceptions and for decades no one has been able to provide a reason why subsidies should be sustained.  Farm subsidies now include federal crop insurance, trade barriers, and arcane price regulations for milk and other products.  Does it make sense to provide crop insurance for export and biofuels crops like corn and soy beans, when no federal subsidies are needed for lettuce, broccoli, alfalfa, which have fared at least as well over the years as have the favored crops of grain, cotton and oilseed?

The Farm Bill was among the first instances in the long and discredited tradition where countless disparate programs are wrapped into one massive spending bill, resulting in bills too big to read and filled with sweeteners that only each narrow interest knows where to find.

In 2012 the House Farm Bill amounted to nearly a $1 trillion dollars ($957 billion). In 2008 the farm bill came to $604 billion, an increase of  63% between 2008 and 2012.  This year’s outlook looks to be much the same, which brings to mind this question:  “When will this nightmare finally end?”

A surprise to most readers is that 80% of the bill goes for funding the federal food stamp program known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance), which  is essentially a cash transfer, having almost no relation to food and no significant connection to farming of any other feature of the farm bill.

There are now 46 million individuals on food stamps, compared with 17 million in 2000 and 30 million in 2008 respectively.  One out of every seven Americans are now on food stamps.  Farm Bill supporters have married food stamps and farm subsidies in order to create the dynamic to generate support to pass farm subsidies, while the powerful farm lobby still claims that farmers need safety nets for protection from the free market and the weather.

U.S. representatives need to answer why they they support hundreds of billions in food stamps.  Since fraud is rampant in the food stamp program, when are legislators going to fix the system so food stamps aren’t handed out to millions of individuals who don’t qualify for them?  Better left to another article is how food stamps are being used to buy a myriad of goods other than food!

Congress must sever SNAP from the farm bill.  According to Daniel A. Sumner in an article published in The Atlantic, the next farm bill should be the shortest in history.  It should also be the last.  Sumner suggests transferring the few programs that merit government attention in the farm program to appropriate legislation and departments and shutting the rest down.

Collectively, the subsidies serve no purpose in this modern, profitable agriculture market.

In reference to the building itself, Sumner sees it as a added bonus for Washington visitors:

The Department of Agriculture Administration Building fills prime real estate right on the Washington Mall next to the Smithsonian.  The building itself is a superb piece of period architecture.  It would make a fine museum of agriculture.  We could even have a special room dedicated to the farm bill as a historical artifact.

It is not too early to start educating your U.S. congressman now on the bill’s expected problems.

Published at Illinois Review on May 6th



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