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Another Farm Bill Frenzy?

North Dakota lawmakers have expressed collective optimism about the passage of the five-year farm bill this year.  Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) is among the most optimistic, and he is joined by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) as well as about 20 leaders from most commodity and farm groups in the state.

Their optimism is curious.  Even though Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has talked about taking a bill to committee bill mark-up in March, it is far from clear where the path to enactment lays.  Perhaps their optimism is more about messaging.  Sen. Hoeven’s ideas about the farm bill, he suggests, will help “ensure an abundant, affordable food supply for the country.”

That’s a nice sounding message, after all.  But shouldn’t that be the role of the free market, farmers, and consumers? 

Sen. Hoeven’s plan would add provisions to disconnect crop insurance from conservation compliance, keep a counter-cyclical program in the bill to keep southern senators on board, and simplify wetland compliance.  This is what we call special interest coalition building.

The Heritage Foundation’s Romina Boccia has explained:

Crop insurance subsidies are one of the biggest taxpayer handouts to the agriculture sector. In 2011, taxpayers were on the hook for $7.4 billion for crop insurance premium subsidies alone. Unlike most other farm payments, taxpayers are prevented from learning who receives these subsidies and in what amounts. Congress should end the crop insurance secrecy to enable taxpayers to hold lawmakers accountable for this massive spending.

A major flaw in the federal crop insurance program is that crop insurance premium subsidies are not subject to means tests or payment limits.  With the increase in larger farms, the bulk of these subsidies are going to wealthy farmers, not that hard working guy featured in the Dodge Ram commercial during the Super Bowl.

Moreover, taxpayers are “left in the dark over which farmers receive the biggest crop insurance spending,” even though, in a democracy, “[t]axpayers have a right to find out which individuals and corporations are benefiting from government largesse and by how much.

She suggests:

Crop insurance needs reform, not an expansion. At a minimum, taxpayers should be able to learn who receives how much in crop insurance subsidies. Without transparency, taxpayers cannot hold elected officials accountable for their actions.

Congress isn’t the only problem, though.  There is pressure – not from all farmers – but from influential lobbyist groups poised to benefit from taxpayer-dollars.  Sen. Heitkamp has encouraged them:

It goes back to you: can you hang together?  When someone comes and offers a program that works for you, are you going to hang with the rest of these guys?

As the Heritage Foundation has explained, the farm bill needs serious reforms, which are long overdue.  Encouraging the passage of a farm bill that looks too similar to the farm bills of years past will not be good for taxpayers or consumers, as it would continue the status quo of “shift[ing] the costs of agriculture risk to taxpayers.”

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The farm bill reauthorization would help big farms, not small farms, if it is not first reformed.

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Farm bill gives taxpayer handouts to big farms.

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