Growing a better farm safety net

Congress is not scheduled to reauthorize the farm bill until 2018, but the farm lobby is already signaling its strong resistance to reform. To combat constant lobbying and misinformation from subsidy supporters and to educate members on the shortcomings of our farm support system, R Street hosted a Capitol Hill panel July 28 on “Growing a Better Farm Safety Net: Evaluating Ideas for Farm Bill Reform.”

The session featured four experts, each of whom approaches agriculture policy from a different perspective, while agreeing that U.S. agriculture policy in in need of reform. Josh Sewell, a senior policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense, outlined the history of the farm support system back to the Dust Bowl era, and explained how our current system distorts planting decisions and lacks a reasonable scope. Colin O’Neil, agriculture policy director at the Environmental Working Group, added that the system is highly skewed toward the largest producers of a handful of commodity crops and does little to preserve small family farms. (For more on this, browse EWG’s farm-subsidy database here.) O’Neil also explained how subsidized crop insurance encourages behavior that is harmful to the environment.

Two additional panelists focused on potential legislative solutions to improve our flawed farm support system. R Street Associate Fellow Vince Smith, an economics professor at Montana State University and director of the American Enterprise Institute’s agriculture program, discussed the findings of his newest paper, which evaluated the impact of potential crop insurance premium-subsidy caps. According to Smith’s analysis, policymakers could place a cap on the amount of premium-subsidy support farms receive without affecting small farms struggling to stay afloat. A $50,000 cap, for example, would affect less than 10 percent of farms—the vast majority of whom have market sales in excess of $750,000 and are well-situated to handle losses.

Nan Swift, federal affairs manager at the National Taxpayers Union, elaborated on payment limits, means testing and other legislative reforms that could improve our farm support system. Along with the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, NTU operates an online platform outlining a proposal to peel back farm subsidies; the platform serves as a valuable resource for anyone interested in farm-bill reform.

So far, some signs point to an appetite for reform this time around— most notably, perhaps, the 2016 Republican Party platform’s planks on agriculture. However, panelists harbored no illusions that reform will come easily. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, while acknowledging that the cotton program requires overhaul, has stated the next farm bill will require only “fine-tuning adjustments.”

R Street will continue to work with taxpayer advocates and allies from both sides of the aisle as we look ahead to the 2018 version of the bill. Hopefully, taxpayers will not be forced to shoulder another thousand-page bill full of wasteful programs and handouts to Big Ag this time around. A modest payment limit, at the very least, would constitute a real victory.

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