A House of Representatives subcommittee Tuesday poked its head out of its cash-lined burrow, voted to funnel billions more of your tax dollars into a program that helps some of the nation's largest farmers at the expense of, literally, the rest of the world, then went back into its hole for, it hopes, another five years.
The move was a bit of a surprise, given that leaders of both parties, including the White House, multinational bankers and global advocates for the poor all had been pushing for changes in federal agriculture policy that range from significant to profound. Or it was no surprise at all, considering the fact that the 18 congressional districts represented on the House Agriculture Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management raked in more than $8 billion in subsidies over the last three years. That's almost a quarter of the total paid out over that time.
The current system of farm subsidies -- which directs billions of dollars to a relative handful of large-scale producers of wheat, corn, rice, soybeans and cotton -- is rapidly becoming unpopular with anyone who doesn't get paid by it. The system distorts the global market by glutting the planet with those privileged commodities, filling the bellies of rich nations with starches and sugars while starving the farmers of smaller nations of any market opportunities that might drag them out of poverty.
U.S. farm subsidies, a stubborn leftover from a New Deal experiment that was never intended to become a way of life, are an increasing embarrassment to the administration, as they were to its predecessor and will be to its successor if nothing is done. Trade talks and tariff wars more and more turn on the fact that the American farm subsidy system gives our agriculture sector, if not always our farmers, an insurmountable advantage in global commodity trading.
Meanwhile, farmers who grow fruits and vegetables or who run operations too small to qualify for big subsidies derive nothing from the taxpayer-funded system other than an offer to sell out to the big-subsidy operation down the road.
The traditional don't-talk-with-your-mouth-full argument offered by defenders of the status quo -- that food prices would rise if subsidies were ended -- is utterly bogus. Money paid to a farmer for his grain or meat is but a tiny fraction of the bar-coded price at the grocery store. The rest is processing (often unhealthy), transportation (usually inefficient) and marketing (frequently insulting).
The farm bill still has a ways to go in Congress. Whatever happens, ideas to replace warn-out subsidy programs with risk management and savings plans for farmers and conservation programs for the land they care for are still out there, and still vastly superior to the same old thinking that crawled out of one congressional committee.