Congress is hurtling toward another budget crisis. It has to pass a catch-all spending bill by Dec. 11 because it has, once again, failed to approve a single regular spending bill for any federal department.
But it has other work to do as well. It is thinking about extending a long list of tax breaks. It may try to repeal Obamacare. Members want to talk about blocking the resettlement of Syrian refugees and defunding Planned Parenthood.
And — quietly — lawmakers are expected to restore recent spending cuts to federal crop insurance, a taxpayer-supported program that doles out cash to participating farmers and insurance companies.
In October, Congress cut $3 billion from the crop insurance program. The savings, spread out over 10 years, would come from imposing a lower limit on the profits participating insurance companies could earn.
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You might think farm state lawmakers, legendary critics of bloated federal spending, would support a modest reduction in crop insurance. Cutting just $3 billion from a budget expected to exceed $48 trillion over the next decade seems pretty reasonable, and achievable.
You would be wrong. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, exploded when the cuts were proposed.
“Farmers and ranchers have done more than their fair share to reduce government spending,” he said.
Roberts demanded — and got — a promise that Congress would reconsider the $3 billion cut sometime before the end of the year. That reconsideration is just a few days away. Restoring the crop insurance cut is now expected to be a policy rider on a new highway spending bill, and a final vote may come this week.
Not everyone is happy with restoring the cuts.
“The companies that benefit from the heavily subsidized federal crop insurance program make huge profits, pay their top executives millions of dollars annually and can easily afford to pull in their belts,” said a recent statement from a social welfare charity called the Environmental Working Group.
Taxpayers pay part of the premiums for farmers who buy crop insurance, the group points out, and can cover some of the losses of insurance companies who sell the coverage. Taxpayers also cover the companies’ administrative costs — $13.5 billion over the past 10 years.
Maybe the scheme sounds familiar.
“That’s just Obamacare for our corn,” satirist Stephen Colbert once said.
Roberts and many of his farm state colleagues have bitterly attacked Obamacare, voting repeatedly to repeal the law. Yet they’ve never really explained why subsidies for sick people are evil but subsidies for farmers and insurance companies are essential.
Maybe we’ll hear that explanation before the government shuts down, perhaps later this month.