Regardless one’s thoughts on the 2016 Republican Platform’s planks on international trade, marriage equality, immigration and so many other issues, libertarians and small-government conservatives should be cheered that this year’s platform gets at least one thing right – cutting our wasteful and senseless system of farm supports.
Amid a slew of contentious and often confusing policy positions, it’s unlikely the party’s agriculture platform will get much press. But some of its language on the federal farm bill and its allusion to crop-insurance reform offer at least a glimmer of hope for anyone who cares about protecting taxpayers and moving toward a more responsible farm safety net.
To be sure, the platform still offers lots of platitudes about the importance of the farm economy and the burden of Environmental Protection Agency overreach, none of which should be surprising to anyone familiar with longstanding Republican talking points on agriculture. It also calls for reduced regulatory hurdles in the agriculture sector and an end to genetically modified food-labeling requirements.
But most notably, the platform offers reforms that appear targeted toward our intricate system of federal subsidies for crop insurance. While not calling out the federal crop insurance program explicitly, the platform states:
Federal programs to assist farmers in managing risk must be as cost-effective as they are functional, offering tools that can improve producers’ ability to operate when times are tough while remaining affordable to taxpayers.
This is notable. As R Street has been saying for a long time, the federal crop insurance program has ballooned out of control and badly needs reforms to place a meaningful scope around the program. Crop insurance premium subsidies are now the primary way the government supports farm incomes, even though the program ostensibly is intended to serve as a safety net to help farmers manage risk in the event of bad harvests and market volatility.
Because there are no means tests or payment limits on the amount of support an individual farm can receive, taxpayer funds flow disproportionately to the largest agribusinesses, rather than small farms struggling to stay afloat. The fact that our farm support system should be “cost-effective” and “affordable to taxpayers” should be a no-brainer.
Given the political climate surrounding the farm bill, where farm state Republicans long have played a decisive role, it counts as a major step forward for the Republican Party to assert formally that the current approach needs revisiting. In recent years, reform-minded politicians from both parties have proposed legislation to make our crop insurance program more accountable to taxpayers. But crop insurance reform—as with all farm bill reform—has proven elusive, with farm-state members of the House and Senate agriculture committees usually serving as the biggest obstacles.
Another platform plank that should make reformers cautiously optimistic endorses the idea of removing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from the farm bill, offering the party’s support for a plan to “separate the administration of SNAP from the Department of Agriculture.” This would be a welcome divorce, which would allow policymakers to consider reforms both to farm supports and SNAP benefits more seriously and thoughtfully.
It’s unlikely that all Republicans in Congress—especially those with sizable agricultural constituencies—will adopt the measured approach toward farm-bill reform seen in the party’s 2016 platform. But for the party to move in the right direction on agriculture policy would be a major win for limited-government advocates and taxpayers, at a time when victories seem few and far between.