Farm bill remains trough for the rich; food stamps, conservation slashed

If Kentucky's families and small farms have any friends in Washington, they should be working to amend the "give to the rich, take from the poor" farm bill being debated in the House.

The House bill slashes food stamps and conservation while pouring ever more billions of taxpayer dollars into subsidies for agriculture.

These subsidies go disproportionately to the largest producers. They encourage destructive practices such as planting erodible soils and wetlands. And they distort markets through overproduction of corn, cotton and other subsidized commodities.

Unless the bill that came out of committee gets a makeover, this Republican House also will wipe out any vestige of reforms enacted in 1996 by a Republican Congress to restore a free market to agriculture: Government payments will determine what gets grown, ending any pretense of Freedom to Farm, the law that lifted federal restrictions on ag production.

The 1996 law also provided payments until 2001 to ease the transition to a free market, payments that continue to this day.

Both House and Senate would end the direct payments by folding them into crop insurance, which sounds like a responsible business practice rather than a government handout but that has evolved instead into a government handout.

The subsidies to buyers and sellers of crop insurance are so generous as to all but eliminate risk, which, encourages producers and insurers to take risks they wouldn't if taxpayers weren't footing the bill.

And, unlike other agriculture subsidy programs, the recipients of crop insurance subsidies would remain secret.

This secrecy is outrageous; it's also a backhanded compliment to the Environmental Working Group, whose online database of subsidy recipients revealed glaring inequities, along with quite a few members of Congress and their families who get government checks.

The House bill also increases other subsidies, which hurt small and beginning farmers by driving up the price of farmland.

An EWG analysis of the House bill found that "because subsidies remain unlimited, the largest 1 percent of crop insurance subsidy recipients will continue to collect, on average, about $220,000 apiece in premium support, while the bottom 80 percent will get about $5,000."

The House bill cuts food stamps by about $20 billion and farm conservation programs by about $5 billion.

The farm bill that emerged from the Senate without the votes of Kentuckians Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, who were protesting the absence of a hemp legalization amendment, is better than what the House is considering, though still a long way from good.

The Senate imposed a modest 15 percent reduction in crop insurance subsidies for individuals making more than $750,000 or couples making more than $1.5 million. Paul voted for the limit, while McConnell opposed it.

The Senate also conditioned crop insurance subsidies on farmers agreeing to certain conservation practices and made smaller cuts in food stamps.

Fortunately, a bipartisan coalition in the House is offering other smart amendments, including a $50,000 cap on premium support, means testing for insurance subsidies and requirement of environmental protections in exchange for subsidies.

Big farmers have been making big money, while far too many working people remain underemployed or jobless. Cutting food stamps to further engorge farm subsidies would be a travesty, especially in a poor, small-farm state like Kentucky.