The Farm Bill – This Will Make You Spill Your Morning Coffee

$100,000 for signage in Los Angeles’s fashion district
$9 million for “rural domestic preparedness” in Kentucky
$250,000 for a wine and culinary center in Prosser, Washington.
Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) sponsored $126,000 for the National First Ladies’ Library in Canton, Ohio. Regula’s wife founded the museum and his daughter runs it. Regula had requested hundreds of thousands of federal dollars for the museum since 1991, when he was able to convince the National Park Service to pay $1.1 million for its headquarters

What are these you ask?  They are called earmarks.  An earmark is a piece of legislation/appropriation tacked on to a usually unrelated bill being debated by lawmakers in Washington, often referred to as ‘pork barrel’ spending.  The items above are actual earmarks sponsored by members of The Senate and The House and were included in the 2008 Federal Budget.

And by the way, the money?  It’s YOUR TAX DOLLARS.

So, what does this have to do with The Farm Bill?  Right now, as I type this, there is debate going on in The House about the latest renewal of the Federal Farm Bill that has recently expired.  The origins of this go back to The Great Depression as a means to aid struggling farmers hit by economic or weather issues (drought, floods etc).  All well and good.  But the system has changed and grown, often without public knowledge or debate, into an out of control beast. The following is a transcript from a Bill Moyers documentary on the farm bill as it stands today.  I know it’s a bit long but it will give you the flavor of what the Farm Bill grew into over the past decade…

NARRATOR: The Republican controlled Congress — critical of what it termed Big Government — wanted to wean farmers off subsidies and to encourage them to grow whatever the market demanded. But to get votes, the reformers had to make trade-offs with farm State congressional Democrats and Republicans bent on maintaining payments to their farmers. The result was a classic Washington compromise: one kind of subsidy was ended. But in exchange, a new subsidy was created: one that paid farmers not for the crops they grew — but for the land they owned. That compromise now costs taxpayers billions.

DAN MORGAN (Post Editor): The taxpayers spend more than 5 billion dollars a year paying farmers not on what they grow, but on what farms grew in 1996. They took a sort of a snapshot of American farms and said, “How many acres — if you grow 100 acres of corn, those are your base acres, and we’re no longer going to tell you what to plant on those acres: you can plant corn, you can plant nothing, but we’re still gonna send you a check to support your income.”

[The Post sent a reporter, Gil Gaul, to Houston, Tx, where rice farmers used to flourish, to check out stories of where the farm subsidy money was going]

GIL GAUL: What happened was one guy down at the end of the table mentioned, “Well, you should go look at these mansions out on these old rice fields. They’re collecting government payments because they were built on these old rice fields and they qualified.” And you know, I just kind of looked at him like he was nuts, and thought to myself, “No way.”

DAN MORGAN:And I remember Gil walking into one of the government offices down there, and he saw posted on the bulletin board some real estate brokers’ cards. By talking to the real estate agent, Gil was able to pin this down, and was told that, “Yeah, you’d be able to live on the one acre, and collect government payments on the other nine acres. They call these ‘Cowboy Starter Kits.'”

NARRATOR: The term “Cowboy Starter Kit” meant a tract non-farmers could buy with enough room to build a house and still keep a horse out back. And it was used as a marketing tool: in essence, buy this land and get a free, annual federal subsidy. But in order to know how much federal money was going into the Cowboy Starter Kits, Gil Gaul would first need to know who owned them.

NARRATOR: Among the USDA payments Cohen found was nearly half a million dollars that had gone to a Texas physician for his 10,000 acres of former riceland.

GIL GAUL: This is supposed to be a safety net, but it’s not a safety net. You’re not saving anybody: you’re saving a surgeon in Houston.

NARRATOR: The Post would report that in Texas — as recently as 2005 — 37 million dollars was paid out to owners whose land was once planted with rice but is no longer. In fact, the state now had more former riceland….than current riceland.

NARRATOR: On July 2nd 2006, the Post published the first report in a series called “Harvesting Cash.” The investigation into direct payments found that nationally more than 1.3 billion dollars over six years had been paid to people who were doing no farming at all.

NARRATOR: In 2002, the White House and the USDA came up with a $750 million fund to aid ranchers and dairy farmers who suffered economic damage from drought. It was called the Livestock Compensation Program. The Post would report it was no coincidence the program arrived in time to help a Republican candidate in an election year and the politicking was just beginning.

DAN MORGAN: Once the USDA had announced this program, right before the 2002 election, everybody wanted a piece of it.

NARRATOR: And everybody would get a piece of it — in 2003 when politicians in Congress expanded the program.

GIL GAUL: They removed the restriction that there actually had to be a drought, and said that any kind of declaration would make the counties eligible for funds in the second year.

NARRATOR: In other words, whether they had suffered losses or not, livestock owners could collect, as long as the Feds declared some kind of disaster. On February 1st 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke up upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere. For all of America it was a tragedy. But for cattle owners in East Texas, where some of the debris fell, it was also the beginning of a livestock compensation boondoggle.

NARRATOR: In order to recover debris and pay emergency costs, President Bush declared a disaster. And that disaster declaration, the reporters discovered, had triggered livestock compensation payments in East Texas…despite the fact that NASA itself would say the shuttle disaster had caused little damage on the ground. But who had received the payments? Had they gone to people who suffered no losses? And how much had the government paid out? Reporter Gil Gaul figured it was the publics money…it ought to be public information. It wasn’t.

GIL GAUL: The USDA didn’t know and wouldn’t say, because it didn’t really keep the information that way.

NARRATOR: To follow the money, Gil Gaul first needed to rule a few things out. He knew farmers and ranchers in East Texas might have qualified for livestock compensation payments if they had suffered legitimate losses from non-shuttle disasters, including drought.

GIL GAUL: We put together a map where the shuttle explosion occurred in East Texas. I also went and looked at drought records, and I looked at rainfall records for each of those counties, and so I knew that in  Chandler, Texas, they hadn’t had a drought in three years, but yet they had awarded a million dollars to farmers and ranchers in these livestock compensation programs.

NARRATOR: What the reporters learned was startling. [There were] a quarter of a million dollars in livestock compensation payments.

GIL GAUL: I then went into our database. I could identify farmers who got payments in that area, but I still wasn’t exactly sure why they had qualified. When I picked up the phone and called the farmers, I would get to a point of the interviewing process where I would say, “And why were you eligible for this?” and the farmers would hem and haw, but eventually they would say, “Well, you know, I don’t really know, but I think it was because the shuttle exploded.”

NARRATOR: But how had these farmers even known they were eligible for federal subsidies?

GIL GAUL: They would have been told by their local county office that they now qualified for the Livestock Compensation Program.

NARRATOR: The county executives were federal employees — representatives of the USDA — based in Texas. Now Gil Gaul had some questions for them.

GIL GAUL: I would call up, and would be told, “Well, I’ve been told I can’t talk.” “Oh, who told you that?” “The State office of the Farm Service Agency,” which is USDA. “Oh, really?” “Yeah, we got a memo.” “Oh, can you send me a copy of that memo?” And a couple of the people sent me copies of the memos.

NARRATOR: Federal officials in the Texas USDA office sent out detailed instructions on how to handle inquiries from The Washington Post. They included: “Keep the interview positive…simple…brief…and accurate.” “Do not be evasive, but don’t volunteer information.” And “Silence is OK.”

NARRATOR: But why would authorities want to send disaster payments to people who hadn’t suffered? {Former County Executive] Blake English suspects an old-fashioned horse trade.

BLAKE ENGLISH: There is a mindset within the bureaucracy maybe that says that if you obtain these federal dollars for a particular area, then it’s one that you can proudly say, “Look what I’ve done for you. Therefore, when November comes around, we want your vote” … the unsaid, the unspoken part.

——–

OK.  So all that leads to the thinking person’s conclusion that “hey this system is just hosed and needs to be completely re-thought.”

You would think so, but the new revised Farm Bill is anything but.  In fact it is yet another expansion and another shining example of earmarked laden pork barrel politics.  Now those of you (the one or two of you) who have read my rantings know that I am all for taking shots at the current Republican administration.  But you know what?  It’s time to fire away at the House Democrats, especially the two-faced Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  She made statements eighteen months ago about how the Democrats would wipe out the current secretive, backroom earmark process and have all legislation be debated out in the open.

Well…bullshit to that.

Not only does Nancy Pelosi support the new bill, she has a piece of backroom earmark legislation attached to it for a single recipient, a salmon farm somewhere in the US.

Here’s a short look at some key items in the new bill..

The legislation would:

  • Increase the nutrition programs, including food stamps and emergency domestic food assistance, by more than $10 billion. It would also expand a program to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren; [OK.  That’s a good thing]
  • Expand subsidies for certain crops, extend dairy programs and increase loan rates for sugar producers. It includes language which calls on the federal government to buy surplus sugar and sell it to ethanol producers, where it would be used in a mixture with corn;
  • Make small cuts to direct payments, which are distributed to some producers no matter how much they grow;
  • Cut a per-gallon ethanol tax credit that supports blending fuel with the corn-based additive from 51 cents to 45 cents in favor of more money for cellulosic ethanol, which is made from plant matter;
  • Add dollars for conservation programs designed to protect farmland;
  • Eliminate loopholes that now allow farmers to collect subsidies for multiple farm businesses;
  • Cut expanded food assistance for an international school lunch program that was passed in the House farm bill last year. While the House had included more than $800 million in permanent dollars for the McGovern-Dole program, the final bill includes less than $100 million; [so how do we get those new fruits and veggies???]
  • Pay farmers for weather-related farm losses out of a $3.8 billion disaster assistance fund. Schafer on Thursday criticized the program, which he says questions the government’s investments in existing crop insurance for farmers and discredits farm programs; [this is  the program that funds for any disaster – like the shuttle disaster]
  • Give tax breaks to owners of race horses, a provision added by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. [WHAT?????]
  • Want all this to stop?  You gotta speak up.  Here’s a link that includes a pre-written letter you can send your congressional leaders.  Give it a voice…

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    7 Comments

    Filed under america, government

    7 responses to “The Farm Bill – This Will Make You Spill Your Morning Coffee

    1. Once again I am astounded by the stupidity of our leaders. (All of ’em, Republican & Democrat)

      Also, you may disagree with me, but why is the government supplying fresh fruits and veggies for kids, are we talking for school lunches that kids pay for or just, “Hey kids, have a carrot because we don’t want you to be fat!” I’m okay with the school lunch thing, because kids pay for that.

      Can someone tell me what happened to making decisions for yourself and not sucking on big government’s teat? (that’s another rant..)

    2. Yes, we have become a country of sugar-tit suckers. It drives me crazy when I read stuff like this… I had no idea and always had pity for the farmers. I guess they are not so hard working anymore and have joined the thousands of folks who get money for nothing and those who work, pay for their leisure. Kind of goes against the grain~

    3. Bill

      I have heard that homeowners in some subdivisions get farm subsidy payments because the land had been recently farmed before being developed. Now that is wrong. It is not that someone will plow their houses under for crops if the money was not paid.

      BTW, President Bush has promised to veto the Farm Bill if it arrives at his desk laden with pork.

      One man’s pork is another man’s bacon. I’ll bet there is plenty of support for those projects in Los Angeles, Kentucky, Prosser and Canton, respectively.

      IMHO, the best weapon against pork is the line-item veto. Many states give their governors the power to strike out individual items in spending bills. Congress tried to do the same in the 90’s and Bill Clinton actually used it before it was stricken as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. As it should have. Congress should have passed it as an amendment instead of a plain bill.

      Bill

    4. As promised, Bush vetoed the Farm Bill.

      Now we will have to see whether Congress overrides…

      Bill

    5. jwcooper3

      Government at it’s finest…

    6. The latest is how they left out 34 pages when they sent it to the White House and will have to do it over. They are even incompetent at being incompetent.

      Bill

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