May 30, 2011

Farm Bill Preview


It’s that time again. Farm Bill season is upon us! It’ll actually be an agonizing, protracted process; the unlamented previous House Agriculture chairman Colin Peterson had wanted to get much of the work done in 2011; new and unwanted chairman Frank Lucas says there’s no hurry. The thing probably won’t be done before the election, and maybe never.
At any rate, we’re off to a stuttering, smoky start with the first official hearing in the Senate committee last Thursday. Ag Secretary Vilsack promised or threatened that the next Farm Bill will be “smaller”. This echoes the previously congealed conventional wisdom. Although most of the rhetoric has focused on cutting the direct payment program, we know that favorite targets will also be the crumbs for relocalization, small farmers, organic production, sustainable practices, and other things which got some modest support in the 2008 Farm Bill. These are already being targeted by the crafters of the Appropriations Bill. Since the price tag for these is negligible compared to Big Ag subsidies, which so far remain sacrosanct even in budget-cutting rhetoric, we can assume that here as usual the deficit terrorists are lying. Once again they’re using deficit fear-mongering as the pretext to gut miniscule programs which could possibly help rivals to corporatism, while this gutting is then portrayed as real action on the deficit. But the real corporate welfare gravy train continues unabated.
We went through this same palaver about cutting subsidies in 2007. The reason direct payments (first instituted in the 1996 bill as a “temporary measure”) are the whipping boy right now is because whereas some subsidies adjust inversely with the market price of crops, direct payments are fixed regardless of the recipient’s prosperity. So even as prices soared, recipients continued to receive fat welfare checks.
Nor are these welfare barons necessarily farmers. Especially where it comes to wheat, rice, sorghum, and cotton, many or most of the payments are rents going to absentee landowners, not farmers.
Cotton brings up another issue likely to be the subject of lots of sound and fury. In 2009 the WTO issued a judgement against US cotton subsidies on behalf of Brazilian cotton interests. What was the US response to this? Pure corporatist Tower of Babel. To preserve the cotton subsidy, the US government bribed the Brazilian interests with a $147.3 million annual payment. (Yes, decline-and-fall-of-empire watchers, they’re paying tribute.) This tribute is also funneled through the provisions of the Farm Bill.
In general, trying to keep maximal subsidies while still maintaining the structural integrity of globalization will be a juggling act for the Farm Bill crafters, just as it was in 2007-08. (Indeed, Bush claimed his veto was over this very issue. The real reason remains mysterious; it’s hard to believe Bush sincerely wanted to cut corporate welfare.)
Meanwhile the administration gives no reason to think that “smaller” will mean better or is even true. In practically the same breath Vilsack again talked up ethanol. And an earlier USDA “fact sheet” said the administration wanted to transition from land baron direct payments to helping them develop “the emerging market for environmental services”. We already know to reach for our revolvers when we hear that Orwellian term, and sure enough here they specifically mention the carbon sequestration scam and corporate wind. Imagine what kind of welfare will be made available for these boondoggles!
(Actually, corporate wind farms could be a good infrastructure to build if we the people have any reasonable plan for eventually socializing them and converting them to local/regional power provision. Since they’ll be built with public money, we’ll own them right from the start. So is that part of the strategy, and in that case do we abstain from commenting on wind corporatism, or even support it?)
One other issue is the baseline spending for the myriad programs. The stupid Democrats spent 2010 assuming they’d reached consensus on a baseline for the Farm Bill. For some incomprehensible reason they thought they’d keep the House, even after how viciously they assaulted their own voters. Now the Republicans will want to cut more. This is the wrangle that may push the bill beyond 2012.
One thing both Reps and Dems agree upon is cutting the miniscule but worthwhile Farm Bill programs. As usual, they’re equally malevolent in principle, but the Dems are more timid in practice, wanting to gradually chip away while the Reps want sweeping cuts.
So there’s the basic lay of the land as we enter the Farm Bill process.
I’m ambivalent about the whole thing. My default is to think we should have nothing to do with big federal legislation. But at the same time, I figure that the legislative consensus on maintaining the corporatism of farm policy will either stand or not, regardless of what happens with the small pro-democratic (organic, sustainability, relocalization) programs. The funding for these is very small, yet it still provides real help for real people engaging in real projects. We try to do a little every day. And as the funding is small yet the feel-good propaganda potential is high, advocates like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) are able to make decent progress in getting these programs into the bill.
So the Farm Bill isn’t exactly like the sham finance bill, which was pure propaganda, or the health racket bailout, which was a reactionary assault whose alleged “reforms” would obviously never be enforced. With the Farm Bill we have the corporatist status quo which will either continue or fall apart on its own (no citizen advocacy will ever persuade Congress against its inclination to vote down corporate ag welfare), while we also have a large number of small but real benefits.
Well, that’s my way of saying I haven’t made up my mind ahead of time. It looks like we’ll have a long time before we have to.

1 Comment

  1. […] U.S. farm bill to favour the big guys From Russ on the Volatility blog: […]

    Pingback by U.S. farm bill to favour the big guys | The Bovine — May 30, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

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