THE BLOG
07/12/2013 11:36 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

Farm Bill Folly: The Real Way the Bill Harms the Poor

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A long line of representatives from the Congressional Black Caucus came to the floor July 11 to stand in opposition to the House's agriculture-only Farm Bill, which passed on a party-line vote of 216-208.

With the food and nutrition portions stripped out, the new bill was rushed with no chance for amendments. The only modification from the measure that failed on the House floor in June was a change that made many features of this bill permanent law, whereas previous bills expired after five years.

The CBC members expressed a variety of concerns with removing the nutrition title from the Farm Bill, centered on the theme that it "hurts the working poor" and "hurts America's children." Further, they said, splitting the bill "takes food from children" and "increases poverty."

All of that is true, but not for the reasons the legislators think. Even if the House never addresses the nutrition title, it is already in the Senate bill and thus will rejoin the legislation in a conference committee. Even if that conference bill for some reason fails unexpectedly, the vast majority of nutrition programs wouldn't lose their funding; they would simply continue under current law.

But the legislation passed by the House does indeed hurt the working poor and America's children. It does this, among other ways, by raising the target prices for crops, expanding the exceedingly generous crop insurance program, keeping in place the costly ethanol and energy programs that drive up food prices and preserving numerous other wasteful and unnecessary subsidies. In other words, the bill distorts the cost of food and prioritizes subsidies for millionaire farmers and big agribusiness over more important safety net programs that are experiencing budget cuts. Moreover, given the history of prior farm bills coming in well above CBO projections, we can pretty safely predict this legislation ultimately will add to, not shrink, the federal deficit.

For a party allegedly dedicated to deficit trimming and reducing wasteful subsidies, the bill passed by House Republicans is an outrage, made exponentially worse by the provision that makes its most egregious programs permanent. While Republicans touted the split bill as the best chance for both sections to undergo meaningful reform, it quickly became apparent that, at least for agriculture, they didn't actually mean to "reform" the programs so much as "transform" them into a golden ticket for the agriculture industry.

With these generous subsidies locked in as permanent, the process that required Congress to periodically address the issue is dismantled; at least, until the next time the farm lobby wants it addressed. Splitting the bill was supposed to force the section to stand up to rigorous debate, breaking the unholy urban-rural alliance that has allowed these bloated programs to grow over the years. Yet despite their stated intentions, leadership forced the agriculture bill through in less than a day, on a closed rule, breaking their own rules for transparency and cutting off the path to reform.

Sadly, this is just another example of Congress giving preferential treatment to large businesses with powerful lobbies at the expense of the less powerful and future generations who will have to repay the debt. Sugar prices will remain unnecessarily high, disproportionately hurting poor consumers and those who rely on manufacturing jobs. Crop insurance subsidies will continue to skew the land market towards farming at the expense of ranchers and other businesses. The lack of a means test will continue to allow big agribusinesses to collect more than $1 million in annual support, while smaller farmers will continue to only receive a pittance. The new shallow loss program will guarantee some farmers 85 percent of their recent record-high revenues, while the rest of the country deals with faltering consumer demand. The list could go on and on, as the 600-page bill represents a goody-bag of overly generous favors.

To be clear, a farm safety net isn't a bad thing, in and of itself. The risk borne by the industry is unique and there is potential for market failure that might be addressed with well-designed federal support. That's not the system we have. What we have instead is a market-distorting boondoggle for the taxpayer.

Just 12 Republicans broke with their party's attempt to dole out pork to the agriculture industry, while raising prices for poor Americans and saddling today's children with future debts. So yes, Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., was right when she went to the floor and declared that Republicans should be ashamed. She was just wrong about why.