The FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act) is aptly named, but for all the wrong reasons. The process for getting to final passage for the federal transportation bill actually has been incredibly long and winding, full of stopgap measures and bumps in the road.
But one thing about the bill certainly is “fast.” Tucked neatly away in Sec. 32205, on Page 1,143 of the 1,301-page bill, is a repeal of Sec. 201 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, passed in early November. For taxpayer advocates, Sec. 201 was one of that bill’s strongest selling points. It ordered the Department of Agriculture to renegotiate the Standard Reinsurance Agreement the federal government has with private insurers who participate in the federal crop insurance program. It would push their taxpayer-guaranteed rate of return down from 14 percent to 8.9 percent.
This small reduction actually goes a long way. The agriculture portion of the farm bill is vastly over budget, to the tune of more than $5 billion in 2014 alone. Despite Big Ag’s cries that their programs deliver taxpayer savings, a large chunk of the supposed savings from the latest farm bill already have been squandered on higher-than-expected payouts from our overly generous farm programs.
That’s why free-market advocates from Citizens against Government Waste to FreedomWorks to the National Taxpayers Union came out in force to support renegotiation. The Heritage Foundation lauded the provision as real savings in a package they otherwise termed a “colossal step” away from fiscal restraint. Unfortunately, it seems Big Ag is about to win the day, and in the most backhanded way – by attaching a seven-line provision to a completely unrelated bill.
However, there may be hope on the horizon. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., plans to raise a budget point of order against the act, rightly pointing out that this vehicle is inappropriate for such a provision. It’s refreshing to see a senator so ready to fight for his taxpayers and stand up against the baseless claims of corporate agriculture interests.
An 8.9 percent guaranteed rate of return would be the envy of any industry, and as our friends at the Environmental Working Group point out, the cuts amount to about $300 million per year, split between 17 companies currently enjoying comfortable profit margins.
With Republican majorities in both halls of Congress, it shouldn’t be difficult to see taxpayer savings upheld once they cross the finish line. It would be a particular shame to see the savings evaporate in exactly one month.
Unfortunately, as evidenced by this provision and the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, permanent victories appear to be elusive with this crop of Republicans.