Last fall, conservative Republicans began celebrating progress on agricultural
reform as one of the
great success stories of the Gingrich Revolution. Now, a few months later, farm policy reform is
close to a shambles and President Clinton and Congress may simply perpetuate the worst abuses
in current programs. The Senate is scheduled to vote today on a farm bill, but there is still
opportunity for taxpayers, consumers and independent-minded farmers to make their displeasure
known in Washington.
The Republicans, led by House Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts of
Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Richard Lugar of Indiana, pushed hard last year for the
so-called Freedom to Farm Act. Its many excellent reforms include the abolition of government-
mandated acreage-idling, which could result in a quantum leap in productivity. The bill will also
greatly decrease the number of times that farmers are required to curtsy to bureaucrats. But the
bill also would give farmers up to twice the direct handouts this year that an extension of existing
farm programs would; the bill would guarantee a fixed, only slightly decreasing level of subsidy
payments through the year 2002.
Unfortunately, there is no assurance that farm subsidies would be ended after
2002. The bill calls
for the appointment of a national commission on farm policy. The chairmen of the House and
Senate Agriculture committees would appoint most of the commission's members -- hardly a good
omen for the liberation of taxpayers and consumers from the burdens of federal farm policy.
The Freedom to Farm Act was part of the omnibus balanced budget legislation
Clinton vetoed in December. Unfortunately, Republicans have responded to the veto not by
strengthening their assault on failed farm policies, but by pursuing compromise with Democratic forces.
Republicans have abysmally failed to educate the public about the true cost
of farm programs.
Since President Reagan proposed to abolish farm programs in 1985, consumers and taxpayers
have been forced to pay more than $370 billion for handouts for farmers, according to estimates
by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. For the same amount of
money, the federal government could have bought all the farmland in 41 states. And,
unfortunately, the House farm bill perpetuates and worsens some of the most repressive and
costly farm policy burdens on consumers.
Rep. Dan Miller (R., Fla.), who is leading the fight to abolish the sugar program,
states that Rep.
Roberts promised an open vote on abolishing the sugar program when the farm bill came to the
House floor. The program has pegged U.S. sugar prices at more than double world prices, and
costs consumers more than $3 billion a year. Yet, Mr. Roberts and the GOP House leadership
have fought hard for a closed rule on the bill.
The peanut program, which costs consumers up to half a billion dollars a year,
is also slated to be
perpetuated with little change. The most appalling provisions in the farm bill involve the dairy
program -- a "compromise" designed to increase the fleecing of consumers by up to 40 cents per
gallon of milk. Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a liberal Washington research
organization, noted on Feb. 1: "This bill will add $2 billion annually to the costs of a program that
already costs consumers $1.5 billion a year."
The Clinton administration long ago abandoned any pretense of fixing farm policy,
on demagogic attacks on any Republican attempt to decrease political control over farming. In a
Jan. 30 letter, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman rejected the Freedom to Farm Act because it
violated the first principle of Clinton administration agricultural policy: "preservation of a
responsible safety net for farmers." This is ludicrous, since farm subsidies are effectively targeted
at large farmers -- those who least need a safety net -- and because farmers are already far
wealthier than other Americans. According to Agriculture Department statistics, the average full-
time farmer is a millionaire, with a net worth of $1,044,396.
Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota have been leaders
in the fight
against farm reform in the Senate. North Dakota has long been a laggard in farm competitiveness.
And, as Hudson Institute analyst Dennis Avery notes, "The lower quality of farmland in a state,
the more likely that state's senators will fight against the free market and in favor of government
control." Because many farmers in North Dakota cannot compete with Kansas farmers, farmers
across the nation may be prohibited from maximizing their productivity.
The longer the farm bill has been debated, the more it is turning into a pork
barrel. The Senate
farm bill would give an extra $200 million to rice farmers, above and beyond what they would
collect under the Freedom to Farm formula. This provision was apparently necessary to buy rice
growers' support for the bill, but the Senate could not have found a wealthier group of farmers for
the windfall. Since 1985, rice farmers have received almost $8 billion. The largest 2,700 rice
farmers have received an average subsidy of roughly $1.5 million each over this period.
Republicans should be especially leery of accepting anti-competitive provisions
in the Freedom to
Farm bill because farm program spending is sinking even without this legislation (thanks primarily
to high crop prices). The National Corn Growers Association, in a letter, fretted that an extension
of current programs "will discourage corn producers from participating in the farm program."
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R., Kan.) stated last Thursday that Secretary Glickman is
worried that crop prices are so high that farmers might not sign up for government programs --
for Democrats, a political fate equivalent to death.
Log-rolling among farm groups has always been vital to getting comprehensive
enacted. Congress now has an excellent opportunity to send three of the most abusive farm
programs -- sugar, peanuts, and dairy -- to the sawmill. The abolition of those programs could
cripple the farm lobby's power to finagle future licenses to raid the Treasury.
At some point, the Republicans will have made so many Faustian bargains to
pass this farm bill
that the entire shebang will deserve to burn in Hades. The Senate should take a stand today,
zapping the worst parts of the bill in vote after vote. And House Republicans, who have left
Washington for three weeks, should use their break to resurrect the principles upon which they
were elected. Farm policy reform can yet be a great victory for the American people.
Mr. Bovard writes often on farm policy.