Editorial, Lincoln Journal Star, July 10, 2006
Members of Congress who represent farm states better start cleaning up the farm subsidy programs, or someone else is going to do it for them.
Rules for farm subsidies are too loosely written. Enforcement to make sure subsidies are used for worthwhile purposes is too lax.
The latest revelations of abuse were turned up by the Washington Post, which reported that in the past five years $1.2 billion in direct farm payments has gone to people who don’t even farm.
Even in farm country, jaws surely should drop at the newspaper’s findings. Among other things, the Post told of suburban homeowners who get annual checks because their property once grew crops. Asphalt contractor Donald R. Mathews of El Campo, Texas, tried to give his $1,300 yearly check back. The government told him it would just go to other landowners. “I don’t agree with the government’s policy,” Matthews told the Post. “They give all this money to landowners who don’t even farm, while real farmers can’t afford to get started. It’s wrong.”
The wasteful program got its start in the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996, when Congress was trying to wean farmers from subsidies. The direct payments were supposed to be temporary.
Ten years later the subsidies are still here and growing. Some of the most outrageous examples are from the so-called Texas rice belt, where farmland has been converted to acreages. Developers even advertise the availability of farm aid to entice buyers.
That’s a long way from where farm subsidies started in the Depression era, as a way to save the family farm.
Belatedly, some of the culprits who helped create the program are beginning to realize that it has gone massively awry. Sometimes property owners evict tenant farmers and just collect the aid. “This was an unintended consequence of the farm bill,” former Rep. Charles W. Stenholm of Texas told the Post. “Instead of maintaining a rice industry in Texas, we basically contributed to its demise.”
Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs has been hammering on the same point for several years now, calling for caps on subsidies, stricter rules and better enforcement.
Last year the government handed out $25 billion in farm subsidies, “almost 50 percent more than the amount it pays to families receiving welfare,” the Post noted pointedly.
There’s still a need in America to provide a safety net for farmers. But if members of Congress from farm states want to preserve legitimate aid programs, they need to start ridding the system of waste and abuse. The day that farm states could rely on an appeal to “save the family farm” are receding into history.
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