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Well, they've finally made me an advocate of ruthless welfare reform -- I mean for wiping out total programs without tears. I'm talking about the myriad federal schemes in which outrageous and incredible subsidies are given to the richest people and companies in America.

The Washington Post enlightened us last Sunday about the Agriculture Department's Market Promotion Program (MPP), which spends hundreds of millions of dollars helping some of the most prosperous businesses in America to hawk their wares overseas.

Sharon LaFraniere has written an article convincing me that some corporate giants are taking handouts from Uncle Sam in ways and amounts that make Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" seem like a relative saint.

M&M/Mars, producer of Snickers, Milky Way and Mars bars and those heavenly little chocolate pellets, has had a sweet deal with the Agriculture Department. This company, closely held by some of the fattest billionaires in this area, got a subsidy of $785,000 from the government last year. There's no way that I can understand why an incredibly prosperous company with an annual advertising budget of $272.4 million needs a handout from the Agriculture Department.

The Post quotes Mars spokesman James E. Conlan as saying, "The analogy is to a mortgage deduction; if it's there, you take it."

This is precisely what Franklin D. Roosevelt called "entrenched greed."

The truth is that this "corporate welfare" isn't just "there" for the taking. The program was begun by Ronald Reagan as a sop to his rich friends, even at a time when Reagan was cursing "welfare cheats" and admonishing TV networks not to run sob stories about hungry families in "South Succotash." This wealth welfare was started in a time of suffering for millions of poor and middle income people, and when the rivers of red ink were becoming floods across the economy. Let me make it clear, as the Post article does, that the corporate freeloaders are numerous. Since 1986, the huge Dole Food Co. has doubled revenues and enjoyed $570 million in profits, but in the same period it has taken almost $15 million from Uncle Sam to help it sell its pineapples, nuts, other fruits and vegetables overseas.

While all elements of our society are cracking down on the use of tobacco products here, this crazy Agriculture Department program has given $650,000 to a cigarette factory in Turkey on grounds that it helps the export of U.S. tobacco.

Mars spokesman Conlan suggests it's just a passive exercise in which huge firms see subsidies lying around, and they pick them up. The truth is that American corporations lobby furiously for these shameful handouts, and they do their best to destroy congressmen who oppose such federal giveaways.

Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer, a Pennsylvania Democrat, described these corporate raids on the treasury as meritless, and he tried to curtail the subsidies. So he failed to win re-election. Sen. Wyche Fowler, Jr., the Georgia Democrat, vigorously opposed the grant to the Turkish cigarette factory. He lost his re-election bid.

Most politicians from agricultural states see great merit in Uncle Sam paying for the advertising of their oranges, peanuts, tangelos, macadamia nuts, raisins, bourbon or barley in foreign markets. They don't care if hugely profitable companies need your and my money, or the subsidy is going into the pockets of lobbyists and corporate fat cats.

Our first step in reforming our welfare programs must be to take away the obscene handouts for the rich, and especially from Dole, Mars and other companies that have the sweetest, juiciest welfare schemes imaginable.

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