Plenty of blame to go around on farm bill travesty

The House on Wednesday overrode the president’s veto of a historically bloated farm bill. The bill, which adds up to a staggering total of roughly $307 billion in spending over five years, is loaded with earmarks, expansions of inefficient farming programs, and subsidies. At a time when American families are struggling with high food prices and many farmers are reaping the benefits of unprecedented profits, this adds insult to injury for the average taxpayer.

While it would be easy to chalk this travesty up to congressional Democrats — after all, President Bush has vetoed the bill — complacent Republicans in Washington deserve much of the blame.

In the House, passage of the farm bill was never in question. With Bush dead-set against it, the issue had been whether or not there would be sufficient opposition to sustain a presidential veto. That’s where House Republican leaders dropped the ball.

To his credit, the top House Republican, Rep. John Boehner (Ohio), has openly stated his opposition to the farm bill. “The [legislation] … extends flawed policies that keep American farmers dependent on government subsidies and discourage other countries from opening their markets to American farm exports,” he noted in a May 13 letter to a colleague. “This approach doesn’t help American farmers — it hurts them. We shouldn’t support it.”

Sage words indeed. Yet Boehner refused to use his position as House minority leader to pressure his colleagues to oppose the bill. Instead, he adopted a “vote your district” policy, which allowed GOP members to vote however they saw fit without fear of retribution.

The result? A behemoth of a bill that not only includes a continuation of price-linked subsidies, but also creates a new program that would encourage farmers to grow crops on marginal land.

House Republicans might have significantly improved the farm bill long ago when they assigned members of their caucus to committee seats. Instead, they packed their slots on the Agriculture Committee with members representing districts that receive a disproportionate amount of farm subsidies — and therefore enthusiastically support the status quo. Seventeen of the 21 Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee ended up voting for the farm bill. (Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, did not cast a vote.)

House Republican leaders could have loaded the committee with congressmen who would push for caps and tighter means-testing on subsidy payments. If they had, Republicans might have improved upon the means-testing provisions, which Democratic leaders hail as serious reform, but which still enable a farming couple earning $2.5 million per year after deducting expenses to continue receiving checks from Uncle Sam.

In the Senate, Republican leadership has been similarly indifferent to reining in agriculture spending. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has openly supported the farm bill — and lobbied to include a special provision benefiting horse owners, many of whom reside in his home state of Kentucky. As in the House, Senate GOP leaders packed the Agriculture Committee with senators who consistently support higher spending. Of the 10 Republican committee members, only Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana has regularly criticized subsidy payments.

The White House deserves similar admonition. Though President Bush stridently opposed the bill, his staff began lobbying aggressively against it only days before the vote on the conference report. Had they started earlier and worked harder, they might have convinced enough Republicans to oppose the bill — and maybe even enough to sustain a veto.

At the end of the day, taxpayers will be left holding the bag for a massive new farm bill that kicks them when they’re down and damages America’s competitive standing. And while some may be tempted to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of congressional Democrats, let’s not forget that the Republicans rolled over, too.

Arnold is director of government relations and James is a trade policy analyst at the Cato Institute.