Making farm supports a safety net again

As part of his Fiscal Year 2018 budget blueprint, President Donald Trump requested a $4.7 billion cut in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, slashing the department’s budget by 21 percent. For its part, Congress soon will begin considering the legislative contours of the next major farm bill, as the Agricultural Act of 2014 is set to expire in 2018.

Reauthorized roughly every five years, the farm bill is a massive piece of legislation that authorizes funding for all agricultural and food programs and sets federal policy for farm-support programs. At the time of its passage, the 2014 bill was estimated to cost taxpayers $489 billion over five years, but actual costs have greatly surpassed those projected by the Congressional Budget Office.

While the White House is asking for cuts, many farm-lobby groups and farm-state politicians argue the U.S. agriculture economy is in crisis and that it needs even more support. In a March 15 letter to the House Agriculture Committee, a coalition of a dozen national farm organizations—including groups like the American Farm Bureau Organization and National Corn Growers Association—urged Congress to bolster low commodity prices and declining farm incomes as part of the next farm bill. The groups contend the 2018 farm bill should acknowledge “the clear need for a stronger farm safety net and more resources for key priorities.”

The Agriculture Committee likely does not need much convincing on this point. In the official annual budget views and estimates report the committee’s chairman and ranking member submitted jointly to the House Budget Committee, they pleaded for no further budget reductions and “the budget flexibility necessary to develop and enact an effective new farm bill before current law expires.” According to the Agriculture Committee leadership, farmers are in a “severe economic slump” and the existing farm safety net “has proved inadequate under current conditions.”

Those lobbying for more extensive farm-support programs long have been quick to invoke the image of struggling farmers who work hard to put food on all of our tables and are just one bad harvest away from financial ruin. While feeding the hungry is always an admirable goal, the reality is that our current farm-support system already goes well beyond anything that could be described as a “safety net.”

The good news for taxpayers—and for the White House’s budget goals—is that reduced farm-bill spending does not have to mean threatening our farm safety net or endangering farmers who struggle to stay afloat. Lawmakers must look past this false dichotomy to craft sensible farm-support policy and ensure that taxpayer dollars are used to help only those who truly need assistance. There are meaningful reforms Congress could pass today to make our farm-support system work more like a safety net and less like corporate welfare.

Image by Nomad_Soul

Featured Publications