Last week, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas and his colleagues were able to crush promotion of “meatless Mondays” at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Presumably, meatless Fridays can continue for the department’s Catholic employees, at least during Lent.
The lentils vs. lamb chops dust-up probably surprised many Americans, who don’t pay much attention to the Department of Agriculture.
Fewer than 2 percent of all Americans still work on a farm. Last year, about 2.1 million people were engaged in farming, fishing and forestry occupations, the Labor Department estimated, roughly the same number of waiters and waitresses in the country.
Yet this week, Congress is trying to figure out if it wants to spend nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years for a bulky mess known as the Farm Bill.
To be fair, most of the money in the bill — about 80 cents on the dollar — goes for nutrition programs such as food stamps and school lunches. In fact, the bill is hung up in part because conservative House members want further cuts in food stamp spending.
But the rest of the farm bill pays for a bewildering web of subsidies, quotas, disaster relief, loans, conservation set-asides, pricing limits, export targets and revenue enhancements designed largely to make sure farm businesses never lose money, while keeping food costs low.
For small farmers it usually doesn’t work; they have to supplement their income with jobs in the city. And food prices jumped almost 5 percent last year.
For big farms, however, the farm bill represents massive taxpayer help. “Farm subsidies are welfare for the well-to-do,” the libertarian Cato Institute recently wrote.
That language may sound familiar.
What other government program spends $1 trillion over a decade, subsidizes insurance with taxpayer dollars, and includes a labyrinth of government rules designed to restrict costs, but guarantee profit?
In important ways, theidea
of the farm bill is the father of the health care law, the Affordable Care Act. Each uses subsidies and market interference to influence decisions for a perceived greater goal: cheap food, in one case, and quality health care in the other.
You wouldn’t know that from listening to farm state lawmakers and their constituents, though.
In a recent interview, U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri — whose family has benefited from farm subsidies — said the farm bill is about the nation’s safety. Taxpayer spending for farmers protects the U.S. supply of inexpensive, available food, she said.
Perhaps. But it isn’t clear why farmers are a matter of national security while sick people aren’t.
Maybe Jerry Moran can explain it. If so, I’d be happy to buy him a Kansas City hamburger next Monday.