THE BLOG

The Payoff Patriots

11/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Post-town hall August, one thing about health care reform is certain: the fiercest battles over national health care are not being waged in major metropolises like New York, Chicago, Seattle, Boston and Los Angeles where the highest concentration of those who will be taxed to pay for it claim residence. Interestingly enough, in and around most of America's cities where the median income is highest and where the larger portion of the top 20% of taxpayers that pay 65% of the federal taxes live, there isn't much of a fuss being made over health care reform, comparatively. Instead, the front lines over health care reform are most starkly being drawn in rural areas of the South, Midwest and the Plains.

Reports of angry mobs shouting down politicians, painting swastikas on Congressmen's doors, and carrying tombstones engraved with the names of government officials have been well chronicled. The notion that health care is too costly for the American taxpayer has emerged as the fulcrum of their outrage. But while many in the heartland fashion themselves as fiscally conservative, the reality of federal spending tells a different story.

More than the Department of Housing and Urban Development and more than the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture receives a higher payout from the federal coffers that all Americans pay into. According the Environmental Working Group, a U.S. non-profit advocacy group for public health and environmental protection, farm subsidies cost American taxpayers $177 billion from 1996-2005. Over a third of that money was concentrated in payments to only five states: Texas, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and Minnesota. Add Kansas, Arkansas and South Dakota to the list and more than half of the farm subsidies budget is spent. That's over $90 billion to eight states in a decade.

The CBO estimates the House's health care bill, H.R. 3200, would cost approximately $239 Billion over 10 years, so it seems remarkable that our country's rural constituency and their government representatives are raising so much hullabaloo over the cost of public option health care when they accepted $177 billion in farm subsidies in ten years. Again more than half of that money went to the benefit of just eight states. Meanwhile national health care is an expenditure that would benefit all states. The central issue of the conflict over health care becomes a matter of priorities when one considers the difference between the farm subsidies budget and the estimated national health care budget is $70 billion over ten years -- that's $7 billion a year, substantially less than what California spends annually on its prisons.

Local growers, small and medium-sized farms that produce fresh produce and meat don't make the cut for big money subsidies. American taxpayers subsidize commodity crops not so we can eat healthier but so that traders on Wall Street have something to play with and corporate farmers can keep prices so low on these crops that they underbid farmers in developing countries. It appears this is one aspect of socialism that heartland America can agree with Europe on.

The annual income eligibility cap to receive a farm subsidy is $750,000, meaning an individual can make up to $750,000 (a couple up to $1.5 million) and still qualify for government aid. In 2007, a total of 1,234 recipients collected subsidies worth $120,000 or more each, and 149 recipients received more than $250,000 each regardless of commodity prices or financial need. By subdividing large farming operations into complex, interlocking corporations, partnerships and joint ventures, large farming enterprises collected millions in subsidies. Of the $16 billion Texas received, only 18% of its farmers got payouts and a mere 10% of them received over three-quarters of the money. Yet in the rural communities of Texas, rural communities of Middle America and the South where corporate farms collect these billions of dollars, the representation and constituency have consistently provided the most vehement opposition to federal spending for health care reform.

For a while, Sen. Chuck Grassley was a Republican ally for national health care reform, but after a month back in his home state of Iowa, and thirty town hall and constituent meetings, he has gone from, "I'm doing everything I can to make the healthcare reform effort in Congress a bipartisan one," to the complete backpedal of "The simple truth is that I am and always have been opposed to the Obama Administration's plans to nationalize health care." Sen. Grassley and his Iowa constituents' concern about the potential debt of national health care seems astonishing when you consider Iowa took $15 billion dollars in farm subsidies, 9% of the overall budget, from American taxpayers in ten years. That's $1.5 billion dollars a year for a state of less than 3 million people, the population size of a New York City borough.

Kansas has made big money off of farm subsidies as well, which is why it may seem surprising that representatives and citizens alike would blockade reform that would put taxpayers money to use for the benefit of all of America's population rather than a select few. Sen. Pat Roberts, Sen. Sam Brownback and Rep. Jerry Moran have helped turn the debate over health care reform to a caution of government expansion but yet have taken in $9.6 billion in farm subsidies for their state. Rep. Jerry Moran's 1st District takes first place in subsidies at $7.5 billion for a single district. North Dakota's At-Large District counts in at second place with $7.4 billion as its Representative, Earl Pomeroy, publicly states a public option is too expensive for America. Nebraska's Representative Adrian Smith's 3rd District got $7.3 billion, rounding out the top three big-taker congressional districts in the country. Nebraska is on the short list of states with considerable farm subsidy revenues at $10.4 billion. Yet Nebraska's Senators Mike Johanns and Ben Nelson, and Representative Jeff Fortenberry, have all come out in opposition to national health care system because of costs.

The hypocrisy is widespread and bi-partisan. Senators, representatives and constituents that would kill a public option because it's too expensive for the country while accepting big federal kickbacks in farm subsidies are members of both parties. Sen. John Thune states on his website, "Even among the farming and ranching community here in South Dakota, healthcare is the issue that is on everyone's radar screen. I think there is a general distrust of the federal government's capacity to manage something like this." Perhaps John Thune and these farmers distrust for government's competency rises out of the fact that their state ranks 45th in federal tax revenues but 8th in federal spending, raking in $7.5 billion in farm subsidies in little over a decade. Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and her constituents are opponents of a public option yet received $7.6 billion in subsidies. Districts 15 and 19 in Illinois received over $5 billion in farm subsidies, yet their Congressional representatives Tim John and John Shimkus, respectively, oppose national health care on the premise that America can't afford to add to the deficit. Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isaakson, Representatives John Marshall, and John Barrow of Georgia; Senators Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby, Representatives Bobby Bright and Mike Rogers of Alabama; Senator Mitch McConnel of Kentucky; Rep. John Beohner of Ohio; and many more have all garnered big farm subsidy payouts for their states and districts and yet all oppose health care on the principles of stemming the expanding deficit and stopping government expansion into private enterprise.

The big government spending of farm subsidies might make sense if the funds were evenly distributed to American farmers to promote and preserve healthy nutrition in our country. But that is not the case. The $177 billion spent on farm subsidies does not go to grants to help struggling farmers expand their growing potential and produce healthy food for America's dinner tables. Most -- 90% -- of the money goes to big corporate farms that produce five crops in particular: corn, wheat, cotton, rice and soybeans. In a study of the McDonald's menu, researchers found corn in every product they offered from the sodas to the salads. Corn, which added excessively to a diet in forms of corn syrup and as a cheap bulking agent, can contribute to obesity, which leads to heart disease and diabetes. Wheat and soy are listed in the top eight food allergens and wheat, also a cheap bulking agent, if added excessively to diet can also contribute to obesity and digestive malfunction. In other words over-consumption of these crops have detrimental effects on health, which ultimately contribute to rising healthcare costs.

In the end farm subsidies not only can be said to redistribute wealth to commodity agriculture farms, but overproduction of these commodity crops are in direct contradiction to the campaign for wellness that is a cornerstone of healthcare reform. It would seem that the bevy of detractors who oppose real healthcare reform under the pretense of federal spending are those who take issue with federal spending only when it's not being exclusively spent on them. It takes unmitigated gall to make federal spending the focus of the debate on national healthcare after having benefited so exclusively and for so long from government payouts. Perhaps as these public servants return to Congress and go about the business of running our country they should reflect on the value of conmity and coalescence in a country so vast and diverse as ours and dispense with the self-interest and "gimme" mentality that got us all into this economic maelstrom in the first place. After all, for people who pride themselves on piety these folks seem to have skipped over scripture where Jesus said to his disciples, "Why do you notice the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank sticking out of your own"?

To learn more about farm subsidies check out the Environmental Working Group's website at: http://www.ewg.org/farm/