Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again.... There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L. Hunt...a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid."
--Eisenhower wrote his brother Edgar on May 2, l956, from NCrefugee in the comments
Ahem. Let me first say, as unlikely as you may be to believe me by the time you finish reading this, that I like Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). I think they mean well, but a political party cannot survive on good intentions alone. If their version of the Farm Bill, FARM 21 (HR 2720) were to be passed, we're talking Springtime for Hastert in Illinois, winter for New York and Maine.
Therefore, it's time for farm policy without pity.
Remember when Clinton cut the welfare programs, and how cool that was, because it really showed that Democrats could decide to save money on the backs of poor people, too? That was great because impoverished single mothers are some of the least likely voters in the country. So they didn't really do anything about it. And who else were they going to vote for? The Republicans? Please.
Farmers, on the other hand, they vote. Trust me on this. And lots of them live in states with barely the population of Los Angeles, but have two Senators anyway. Why do you think the Republican members of the House Agriculture Committee mentioned preserving the "safety net" for American family farmers so many times during their opening statements on the Farm Bill (HR 2419) markup that I thought I was listening to Democrats talk about food stamps? (Which the Republicans wanted to cut, as will surprise no one.) Why do you think they didn't try to cut farm subsidies when they controlled all three branches of government? There's no law against altering farm policy more often than every five years.
Because for all that they're venal, corrupt and utterly lacking in compassion, congressional Republicans aren't actually complete sodding morons.
Republicans don't need to be told that placating the WTO, Brazilian cane growers and West African cotton farmers will win them not one, single, solitary vote in farm country come election time. They don't need to be told that American workers, cane and sugar beet growers, and cotton farmers, don't care about placating those people, either. I think, really, we can pretty much agree on the fact that Republicans are deeply in touch with their own self interests.
The Democrats considering whether or not to support FARM 21 might want to allow themselves to be instructed by that example.
With Friends Like These
They should also, just maybe, look at who some of their eager little friends are. First and worst up, the National Taxpayers Union, Grover Norquist's old organization and a beneficiary of Olin and Scaife money. Do you really and truly believe that they're signing on to this out of the depths of their conviction? Frak, no. If they were, they'd have won this fight when George Bush said that he wanted to end all farm subsidies in 2005, when their bestest buddies held the gavels of both chambers of Congress. Why did the people that we all came to know and love as the Rubberstamp Republican Congress not jump to do his bidding? Why were their good friends at the National Taxpayers Union not able to make them see the light. Again, I would argue, because they're not sodding morons.
What the National Taxpayers Union is doing right now is encouraging the Democrats to commit the kind of generational, rural electability suicide that they could never convince their Republican colleagues to sign on to. There couldn't be a better chance for them to gain a policy win and strike back at their enemies from their current position as beggars at the table.
Then there's cosponsor Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA). He's one of the most reliable sheeple votes the Republicans have, a nice smile atop an empty suit, though he occasionally pretends to give a damn about conservation so that his pro-choice constituency has one less gripe at the voting booth. He's from an urban district whose main industries are software, Nordstrom's and rail shipping, and the Republicans there trend towards libertarianism. This is a state, I kid you not, where they have libertarian candidates for insurance commissioner. Let that, as Chris Rock might say, swirl around your head. He couldn't be more insulated from the effects of leaving a trail of devastation all up and down the middle of the country.
Next, we have those cheerful food safety enthusiasts, the Grocery Manufacturers Association. They were sponsors of the National Uniformity for Food Act, which would have put an end to the ability of state and local governments to write stricter food safety laws than the federal government, overturning somewhere around 200 food safety laws around the country. Or hey, like chocolate? They don't. They were also behind a proposed law that would have allowed products containing no cocoa butter to be labeled as chocolate. And their Democratic (!) president and CEO wrote a letter just last week denouncing card check union organizing rules for farmworkers.
Considering that Kind and Blumenauer are all about food safety, or that the Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee unanimously held the line last week to insist that prevailing wage requirements be included in federal loan guarantee contracts for biofuel refineries, I don't know how this Grocery Manufacturers Association is anything but a political albatross.
What then of the socially responsible groups listed? All right, let's go.
Oxfam America really does believe that Congress is going to vote based on African interests. They're not going to, and that's kind of sad, but that hasn't stopped OxFam from tilting at this windmill for years. It's a blindspot that makes the eyes of one former employee of the well-meaning organization just roll heavenwards in despair. Nothing, apparently, can be done to mitigate their intractable political out-of-the-loopness.
What about Environmental Defense? Mmmm, defense. Feel the warm fuzzies. And they've done so much work to try to mitigate hog waste in North Carolina, which is great! Yeah. Except that they're campaigning for more state subsidized production grants for hog farming, a battle they at least partially won, and are now arguing that market-based strategies can work after years of the national chapter lobbying for federally subsidized hog farming.
How subsidized? Through a conservation program, that's how. Environmental Defense is the leading champion for porking up the budget of a program called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which was a great program when it mostly helped small, family farms. It still achieves good results, but because of high payment limitations, it's also been used as an unreformed factory farm slush fund. The folks at Environmental Defense haven't complained too much about that. And now that the Farm Bill is out of committee, they don't seem to be railing against the fact that the former $450,000 five year cap has been raised to $625,000 over five years, nearly all of which could be used to subsidize factory farm manure lagoons, if a producer takes the slight dodge of enrolling part of their land in a second conservation program.
Environmental Defense is a good organization that gets a lot done, and they've contributed a lot to the Farm Bill debate. But they just seem a little too willing to overlook the extension of big payouts to big polluters.
A payout of $450,000 over five years, or $625,000 over five years, isn't a conservation grant. It's a production subsidy, of exactly the sort these alleged reformers are trying to eliminate. But somehow, production subsidies for livestock confinement and sewage treatment are less reprehensible to them than production subsidies for corn and barley.
A Plan To Fail
So, fine, I don't approve of their choice of partners. What about the bill? Well.
Let's take the repeal of sugar tariffs. This costs the federal government pretty much nothing. But it's terrible, right, because it increases the costs we have to pay for sugar? Let me ask you something, right after reminding you again that American sugar farmers certainly do vote, and think about it carefully:
Do you see cheaper sugar as being the United States' chief need, just now? With the diabetes, and the heart disease, and the obesity, and the glucose so saturating our food supply that you can give yourself a hypoglycemic fit by inhaling too deeply at the grocery store?
Right! Bring me my even cheaper sugar, pronto!
Next, planting restrictions on subsidized acreage are repealed. Hallelujah. It's not really the best idea to plant only a few types of crops, or especially just one type, on a piece of land. That's Ecology 101. Unfortunately, someone neglected to take certain other basic classes when planning this bill.
Farmers on subsidized acreage may now only grow subsidized commodities for resale, an arrangement that prevents them from competing with growers of unsubsidized fruits and vegetables, also known as specialty crops. For the few years of transition out of subsidies, specialty crop growers would be in constant peril of losing their livelihoods. And you could probably kiss Rep. Sam Farr's, Rep. Joe Baca's, Rep. Dennis Cardoza's and Rep. Jim Costa's Democratic seats in California farming districts a long, sour goodbye.
They also leave the Conservation Security Program unfunded, just like in the latest version of the Farm Bill. This means that a program that already has small payout caps and is targeted towards rewarding sustainable production, instead of helping polluters reform or mitigate bad behavior, is just cancelled for the foreseeable future.
The bill also switches all farmers' marketing loans to recourse loans. During last week's House Agriculture Committee markup of their version of the Farm Bill, Congress members from both parties discussing the listening tours they held throughout the country said that farmers liked three things about the 2002 Farm Bill: direct payments, counter cyclical payments (just, gods, don't ask), and marketing loans.
So, the government used to give farmers non-recourse loans against their crops. That meant that if a farmer couldn't find a buyer for the loan price or higher, they could leave the crop in government storage and wash their hands of it. But then the government is stuck with, say, a few tons of corn. What are they going to do with that? Then someone came up with the idea of marketing loans, where even if the farmer can't find a buyer for the loan price or higher, they sell it for what they can and keep the difference. The government pays out some money, but they didn't have to find a buyer for the corn, continue to pay storage costs, or arrange the transaction. They're done, everybody's happy.
Now suppose you're a member of Congress and you have to go back to the farmers in your district and tell them that, instead of these marketing loans, they'll only have access to loans they have to pay back in full. A recourse loan, which means that their property can be seized against the amount. No one in their right mind takes that trade down without a fight. Particularly not if they're a producer in an industry where, as Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) noted last week, they have to buy everything at retail and sell everything at wholesale, to accept prices at both ends.
And what about the other payments? Just about everything besides conservation and recourse loans gets replaced with a Risk Management Account, which is the farm policy version of healthcare savings accounts. From FARM 21 ally group, Taxpayers for Common Sense:
... A Risk Management Account or RMA allows farmers to weather the ups and downs of agriculture, purchase crop and revenue insurance, invest in rural enterprises that boost farm income, and plan for the future. In particular, account funds could be used in years when a farmer’s income drops below 95% of their average income for the past 5 years. Some subsidized farmers would receive an annual government contribution to their accounts to build up balances and ease the transition away from traditional subsidies. ...
The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (pdf) has a different take:
... The proposed alternative to commodity programs, a risk management tax-preferred savings account, would provide tax benefits in proportion to funds invested in the accounts, benefiting the well-off far more than the average farm taxpayer. Like most tax subsidies, the more disposable income one has available to invest in the tax preference, the larger the benefit. If a farm family does not have disposable income to invest in any given year, then there is no tax sheltering to be gained. Unlike commodity payments that at least have the framework for targeting to moderate-sized farms through payment limits, the proposed tax accounts are untargeted. Most of the tax subsidies will flow to mega-farms. Moreover, the accounts are tax free in the good years when money is available to the farmer, but taxable in the bad years when the farmer may be making withdrawals, the opposite of what one would think of as a traditional safety net feature. ...
How ... special.
The Opportunity Cost
FARM 21 is likely to have a hard time passing, or even getting close. And thank goodness. Though unfortunately, too many Democrats are probably going to take a vote that, at the very least, won't endear them to rural America. And instead of discussing truly innovative solutions, they'll be pushing some misguided Libertarian People's Front ideas about why government works better when it's dismantled immediately. Or, alternately, insidious neoconservative schemes that would rather add $350 million dollars to a potential corporate slush fund than spend more on efforts with a lot of leverage.
The thing is, I don't especially like farm subsidies. I don't really want to be put in the position of arguing for them. But there isn't a full range of choice here. There's electoral suicide and renewed waves of farm country bankruptcies, or there's the status quo with some moderate but perhaps effective improvements. As I said above, there's no law against reforming farm policy before one Farm Bill is up. Further, appropriators shuffle money around every year, allowing leeway to make the implementation of a bill significantly different than its original framework.
Instead of using up valuable floor time and lobbying effort, here are some proposals that the FARM 21 crowd could have helped out with, instead. They're modest, help small and medium family farms that could suffer under a hard end to subsidies, and provide positive incentives for stable food chain development. Consider:
From the Community Food Security Coalition:
Many of you know about and have benefited from the Community Food Projects (CFP), a program that was started 10 years ago and has been incredibly successful at empowering low-income communities to identify problems related to food security and take action to permanently solve them with an investment from the federal government. In the past, the program has received $5 million annually in mandatory funding, meaning that groups like CFSC didn't have to fight every year in order to receive money.
... While the House Agriculture Committee increased funds for CFP to $30 million, the money is discretionary, meaning that it's possible this vital program gets nothing at all when it comes time to dole out the money each year. There is no money in the appropriations bill for FY '08, so if the change to discretionary stands, there will be no money for CFP in 2008. ...
- $3 billion be restored to the Conservation Security Program
- Real payment limits be applied to commodity programs, including a $40,000 direct payment cap and the closing of all loopholes.
Note that introducing a hard cap of $40,000 on these payments would represent an immediate and sizeable reduction in subsidy payments, without jeopardizing farms teetering on the edge of disaster.
From the Center For Rural Affairs:
The Competitive and Fair Agricultural Markets Act (H.R. 2135) will help restore competition and fairness to livestock markets and address the unchecked market power of packers and poultry processors that has allowed them to manipulative livestock markets and discriminate against small and mid-sized family farms and ranches. Livestock Subcommittee Chair Leonard Boswell will offer the bill as an amendment to the livestock sections of the farm bill on Thursday, May 24th.
... Rep. Boswell’s amendment prohibits mandatory binding arbitration clauses, requires clear disclosure of risk, and prohibits confidentiality clauses in contracts with packers and processors; closes poultry loopholes in Packers and Stockyards Act to provide full authority over all poultry cases; and requires that USDA define the legal term "undue preference" to strengthen the law and stop price discrimination against small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers. ...
[or, from email]
... [T]he House Agriculture Committee struck a major blow against family farms. The Committee approved a big increase in subsidies for mega-farms to drive smaller operations out of business.
If it stands, the government will spend more to destroy family farming. The real limit on direct payments, made regardless of crop prices, is raised from $80,000 to $120,000. All existing limits on loan deficiency payments are simply removed, and other loopholes exploited by mega-farms are left open.
... Those that support this [payment limitation] increase are touting a provision that denies payments to couples with income greater than $2 million. But that will have little impact in Iowa, other than causing rich landlords to switch to cash rents. And any mega-farm with decent tax advice will keep taxable income below $2 million by investing in expansion. ...
All the foregoing proposals are in jeopardy. All of them could have used the support and effort that was thrown into an unwise frontal assault on subsidies, without consultation from groups who make it their business to represent small, sustainable farms and urban populations facing food insecurity.
Time is short. The Farm Bill and all proposed amendments, including the FARM 21 offerings, are going to the floor this week. Every member of Congress is going to get the chance to vote on the issues, so please contact your congressperson by phone today and ask them for reform that won't destroy either their political capital or family farming. If you already know who your representative is, you can call the United States Capitol switchboard directly at (202) 224-3121, and ask for their office.
You can ask them for full funding for the Conservation Security Program, mandatory funding for Community Food Projects, $40k caps on direct payments, $40k yearly maximum caps on conservation payouts, and a vote for HR 2135 to let farmers back into court and end unconscionable farming contracts. They pay attention to phone calls, they notice. Be specific, and don't hesitate to call across party lines or to a member of Congress whose mind you suspect is made up. Farm issues get very little notice as a general rule, so your voice can really make a difference.
PS - OrangeClouds115 wrote earliers about arbitration and CSP, but not specifically within the context of FARM 21, which has gotten a lot of attention because of Blumenauer's outreach campaigns.