Soaring prices for corn, wheat and other agricultural commodities aren't just contributing to inflation, they're increasing hunger and misery among the poor. Confronted with a chance to help, Congress is instead on a path to boost corporate welfare for wealthy farmers.
There is much to dislike in the most recent farm bill, the five-year plan for agricultural subsidies and food stamps, but there's something to like as well. The House version would increase spending on nutrition programs -- mostly meaning food stamps but also including emergency domestic food aid and school lunch assistance -- by $11.5 billion over 10 years. That is a desperately needed life preserver for the indigent. Yet as the House and Senate struggle to reconcile their separate bills, they've hit a serious roadblock. They're about $10 billion over their spending limit, prompting a veto threat from President Bush. That puts the gains for food stamps in serious danger.
For what it's worth, Bush is dead right. Congress is relying on accounting shenanigans to make the farm bill's numbers pencil out, and the bill continues to give outrageous handouts to millionaire farmers at a time when farm income is skyrocketing. The 2002 farm bill should have expired in October, but it has been repeatedly extended as Congress tries to break the impasse; the latest deadline is April 18.
As negotiators work to reconcile the bills and close the $10-billion gap, they're fighting ferociously over one of the more obscene line items in the Senate's version: a new $5-billion disaster-assistance program intended to help growers whose crops are destroyed by drought or flood. In practice, this would simply encourage farmers to plant in drought-prone areas, knowing the government will bail them out if their crops fail. It also would encourage them to farm on environmentally sensitive land now being held in the Conservation Reserve Program -- mostly poor farmland that otherwise would be considered too risky for planting. The way the negotiations are proceeding, it's looking as if the nutrition budget will be cut in order to pay for this environmentally destructive handout.
The cost of eating at home has risen more than 5% so far this year, the fastest rate since 1990. Food banks across the country are reporting an increase in demand as the very poor are pushed closer toward starvation. For Congress to take food out of their mouths in order to shovel more money at farmers -- who are enjoying huge profits thanks to the same high food prices that are hurting the poor -- would be a disgrace.