PILT and the Farm Bill: Why Americans No Longer Trust Their Elected Officials

Jan 15, 2014

Christmas may have been last month, but the House of Representatives just jammed through a $1.111 trillion appropriations bill and it looks as if it's preparing to pass another trillion-dollar bill in the coming weeks in the form of the much-maligned food stamp and farm welfare bill. The two bills have much more in common than their trillion-dollar price tag, though. They are intimately connected by an obscure program known as Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT).

Although most Americans have never heard of PILT, it provides payments to counties that are suffocated by the massive amounts of federal land within their borders. Because the Federal estate is so huge and predominately in the western states, counties there are hamstrung in their ability to generate taxes and provide for basic services like firefighting and emergency medical services.

Why would a program like this be left out of an omnibus bill that provided over a trillion dollars for almost anything you could imagine? One can only wonder if this was intentional, compelling yet another group, Western lawmakers, to support the Farm Bill with the proverbial "offer you can't refuse."

Until recently, the Farm Bill has been regularly pushed through Congress by shackling the ever-growing food stamps program with big government farm subsidies. Unable to pull off business as usual last year, there appears to be an effort to coerce some Western lawmakers who might have otherwise opposed both the flawed farm policy and runaway food stamps provisions of the Farm Bill, to help drag a $1 trillion monstrosity across the finish line.

Adding to the coalition that has prevented much-needed reforms to both programs is exactly the wrong thing to do. Separating farm programs and food stamps into their own bills and not adding PILT, is what can lay the groundwork for real future reform.

There are much better options than jamming PILT into what is likely to be a horrendous Farm Bill conference report. The odds that the Farm Bill is going to be bad are exceedingly high given how secretive conferees have been about the contents of what they are cobbling together and given the lack of policy reforms that occurred following the first farm bill's failure on the House floor.

It would be far better to deal with the PILT program through its own stand-alone bill or, better yet begin the process of selling off the vast tracks of federal land and returning power to the states.