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Cut farm fat

Congress should take advantage of a growing drive to end costly agricultural subsidies.

June 25, 2007

IT'S A GREAT TIME to be a Midwestern farmer, what with rising demand for ethanol causing prices for corn and other key crops to soar. But if you think that has decreased farmers' appetite for the billions of dollars in taxpayer handouts they get every year through the farm bill -- this country's most egregious corporate welfare act -- think again.

The 2002 farm bill expires in September, and it's up to the House Agriculture Committee to write its replacement. Last week, to the surprise of no one, the 18 members of a subcommittee working on a draft bill voted unanimously to reject all reform efforts, including a modest fix from the Bush administration aimed at making the bill compliant with international trade rules and cutting off government payments to farmers who make more than $200,000 a year. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization, points out that those 18 subcommittee members come from districts that hoovered up a quarter of the $34.8 billion in crop subsidies parceled out from 2003 to 2005.

The committee may be hoping for another five-year pork package, but that could be tougher this time around. An unusual coalition from across the political spectrum has arisen to fight farm subsidies.

Conservatives don't like them because they're a waste of taxpayer money and interfere with free trade. Consumers don't like them because they inflate food prices. Anti-poverty activists don't like them because they encourage American farmers to overproduce certain crops and dump them on the world market, putting farmers in poor countries out of business. Even most U.S. farmers don't like the current system because its benefits are distributed so unevenly: The top 20% of recipients collect 84% of crop payments, and roughly two-thirds of American farmers don't get any subsidies at all.

It's probably too much to expect progress from the House Agriculture Committee. But even if it drafts a status-quo farm bill, the rest of Congress can scrap it. There are strong reform alternatives, particularly the bipartisan "Farm 21" bill introduced in the Senate by Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and in the House by Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Dave Reichert (R-Wash.). It would end trade-distorting crop subsidies and instead put the money in "risk management accounts" -- sort of like Individual Retirement Accounts for farmers -- and end government payments entirely within seven years.

A small minority of farm states has controlled U.S. agricultural policy for far too long. It's time for the rest of the country to wean agribusiness off the dole.

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