Down on the farm


Both houses of Congress appear ready to enact a new farm bill that would deceptively expand agricultural subsidies while cutting other vital areas of funding, notably food stamps.

After an unsuccessful effort to pass a farm bill last year, the Senate passed a long-anticipated five-year bill this week. The bill includes several provisions that are likely to benefit agriculture in Ohio and Michigan, such as its support for local and organic farming promotion, dairy farmers, and specialty crops.

But broader provisions of the Senate bill are disappointing. The bill commendably does away with gratuitous direct-payment subsidies that go to farmers whether or not they plant their crops. But it seeks to cut additional spending in precisely the wrong places.

It aims a blow at the most vulnerable Americans by cutting about $4 billion from the federal food stamp program, as well as more than $3 billion from federal conservation programs.

If the Senate farm bill is uninspiring, the House version that failed a first vote this week is terrifying: It would cut $20 billion from food stamps. That would devastate the program, which costs about $80 billion annually, slashing a hefty portion of the aid that millions of Ohioans and other Americans depend on. And some Tea Party lawmakers said the House bill didn’t cut enough.

On other issues, the Senate and House largely agree. Both versions would cut direct payments to farmers — a subsidy program that is rightly criticized for primarily benefiting wealthy farmers and industrial agriculture — by about $5 billion. But if the legislation passes in its current state, these payments will be more than replaced by an expansion of crop insurance subsidies.

Like direct payments, insurance subsidies will benefit most those who need them the least. About three-quarters of insurance subsidies are paid to the nation’s 20 percent of wealthiest farmers.

Unsurprisingly, senators who voted for the farm bill received on average more than twice as much in campaign contributions from the crop insurance industry and related agricultural industries than those who voted against it.

Congress still has the opportunity to cut federal spending in this year’s farm bill, by scaling back wanton agricultural subsidies. At the same time, it can continue to fund programs that support poor Americans.