August is the one time the concerns of outside-the-beltway Americans are heard consistently in Washington, as major news outlets relay messages from congressional town hall meetings across the country. This August had an almost singular focus: Obamacare. House Republicans spent countless meetings railing against the law’s exorbitant spending levels and “Soviet-style” mandates. Concerned constituents anxiously listened and questioned while their representatives presented strategies for bringing down the law.
These same House Republicans often touched on a second pressing subject, the farm bill, which currently resides in legislative limbo. In the coming weeks, House members must figure out how to proceed on the nutrition titles they omitted from their own bill and conference some legislative package with the Senate before current policy expires Sept. 30.
Given the stinging anti-Obamacare, anti-spending rhetoric, it would be reasonable expect the nation’s bloated farm programs to get the same treat. After all, crop insurance subsidies provide guaranteed prices for crops, protecting even million-dollar agribusinesses from minor losses. The Soviet-style sugar program controls the amount of sugar on the market, keeping prices high and creating a government market for any leftovers (which are then turned into the hated ethanol). The list of egregious, high dollar programs is endless, and the programs are constantly over budget. But if you think tea party Republicans spent any time explaining the dangers related to farm spending, you’d be wrong.
In fact, they did quite the opposite. For example Rep. Tom Cotton, Arkansas’s Senate hopeful, recently told his constituents, “I voted for a real farm bill. [Senate opponent] Mark Pryor voted for a food stamp bill. I want farm programs that are designed to help Arkansas’ farmers without holding them hostage to Barack Obama’s food stamp program.”
Leaving the food stamp remarks aside, it should be infuriating to any fiscal conservative that Cotton would brag about passing the House’s farm bill over the Senate’s version, as the House bill contained more generous spending and no meaningful reform for the biggest outrageous boondoggles, like federal crop insurance. While the Senate bill reduced premium support for farms netting more than $750,000, the House version simply made insurance support more generous.
Interestingly, in Cotton’s district, farm supports are incredibly concentrated, with 10 percent of farmers receiving 87 percent of the subsidies, amounting to $35,292 average per year between 1995 and 2012. In Arkansas as a whole, 77 percent of farmers didn’t even receive subsidies, while 10 percent of recipients received 81 percent of the subsidies, or $65,464 on average per year between 1995 and 2012. The bottom 80% on the other hand, received $789. It’s shameful that Cotton would support such programs for rich farmers while bragging about cuts to the food stamps that support one in three children in Arkansas and 17 percent of Arkansas’s families. While food stamps certainly need reform, subsidies for millionaires should take a higher priority.
Cotton isn’t the only confused tea partier. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., bragged about $40 billion in agriculture cuts, but the bill does no such thing, and is in fact likely to be more expensive than the current bill if crop prices recede even slightly from their current record highs. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., claimed his vote against the House’s first farm bill attempt was due to the nutrition programs only being cut by 2 percent, not because he wasn’t 100 percent committed to passing farm supports. The list could go on and on.
Now, August recess is coming to a close, and lawmakers face a busy agenda upon their return. With only nine workdays in September, it seems likely that the farm bill solution will simply be an extension of current policy.
That doesn’t mean members aren’t out promising the moon to their constituents during town hall meetings. Numerous news stories portray congressmen as cautious but optimistic that a deal can be achieved before the deadline. The storyline says that Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is ready with legislation to cut $40 billion from the nation’s bloated food stamp programs, and after passage, a conferenced farm bill will return to be sent on to the president.
Constituents clamoring for agriculture legislation seem begrudgingly accepting of this course. But why should the rest of the country? Republicans, particularly those in the tea party, have done their constituents a disservice. It’s unfortunate that August has passed without anyone seemingly ready to hold them accountable.