As I read the op-ed columns and lobbying group papers on the farm bill debate one theme is fairly consistent and we all saw it coming.
One problem with the farm bill has been its historical lack of balance. For example, only 39 percent of all U.S. farmers and ranchers received crop subsidies in 2005. These farm-bill subsidies support the growing of commodities such as corn and soybeans, but have little support for fruits and vegetables.
These imbalances have consequences for eaters. Between 1985 and 2000, the real price of fruits and vegetables increased by 40 percent, while the price of soft drinks and other sugary and high-fat foods declined by as much as 20 percent. If our farm bills had been healthy-food bills, we could have distributed government support more equitably to make nutritious food more affordable. In part because of this imbalance, we are paying more than $100 billion a year in obesity-related medical costs. [More] [My emphasis]
Say what you will about the Environmental Working Group, but the power of one guy (yup - that's all) armed with a decent computer, good database skills, and well-run website is formidable. Subsidy proponents simply have been unable to counter these exposed numbers, especially when they contrast significantly with the traditional rhetoric of farm payments.
The maldistribution of government money also plays well for those who argue about local producers being short-changed.
There's growing demand to change how the subsidies are allocated. Some say it's unfair that commodity growers receive nearly all the money. And there's a push to spend more money helping farmers solve environmental problems and less on direct payments to individuals. [More]Moreover, the breadth of the coverage and interest in the new farm bill seems greater. Opinions are popping up in places that never cared much before.
Each year the federal government makes payments worth millions to farmers across the country -- many of whom are massive corporations, not the average family farmer, like Maine farmers. These subsidies promote inefficiency and encourage growers to "game" the system in order to qualify for larger subsidies. [More]This means there could be fewer easily-traded-for votes from urban legislators than in the past. When you don't have many farmers in your district/state, why not swap a farm bill "aye" for a vote that will impact your constituents? That type of thinking may not be as easy to come by anymore. Pressure groups have arguably lowered the "disinterest" in farm payments, I think.
The bottom line - if the forces at work in the farm bill debate cannot alter the path of this juggernaut legislation, it could be as close to as close to permanent as the Constitution. But as I mentioned in this week's USFR commentary, a number of small changes (slightly lower payment cap, wider distribution, less market-distorting, etc.) could essentially make our farm program an afterthought for industrial producers in the booming grain business.
This Death of a Thousand Cuts is starting to look like the optimal outcome to me.