Provisions in the farm bill passed by the Senate this week have set the stage for Big Ag to win a monumental shell game. The hapless victims will be American taxpayers.
Currently, commodity farmers get handouts totaling about $5 billion per year from the government in direct subsidies, whether they need them or not. Large farms and agricultural corporations receive most of this largesse. Under the new Senate bill, these subsidies would disappear and be replaced by a $9-billion expansion in crop insurance support, which reimburses farmers for losses caused by weather.
Crop insurance is really just handout by another name. The government picks up nearly two thirds of the cost of premiums. It also pays private insurance companies more than $1 billion a year oversee the policies. But at least in theory, benefits are paid out only to the farmers who actually need them.
This is where political sleight-of-hand enters the picture. Commodity subsidies received by individual farmers are part of the public record and are published in a database maintained by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, DC nonprofit.
In contrast, crop insurance payouts are confidential. Even though their money is being spent, taxpayers have no way of knowing who gets how much. How convenient, if you happen to be a wealthy farmer who might not want others to know how deeply your face is planted in the public trough.
Take the example of Congressman Stephen Fincher, a Tennessee Republican. Last month he vigorously argued in favor for slashing $20 billion from the farm bill’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps) which helps feed nearly 50 million needy Americans.
In support of his stance, he hauled out the Bible, quoting from Thessalonians: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
What the Congressman, who is also a well-to-do farmer, failed to mention is that over the past dozen years he has pocketed farm bill crop subsidies totaling $3.5 million. Last year his take, according to the EWG, was close to $70,000 in subsidies alone, more than twice the median income for Tennessee families.
At least Rep. Fincher’s hypocrisy was exposed. If the provisions of the Senate bill become law, similar shenanigans may never see the light of day.
As the House of Representatives begins to take up the farm bill, lawmakers who like to base their legislative decisions on Biblical quotations should reflect upon the following verse from Luke: “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.”