The House just wants to snack
And, now, the Tasty Bites theory of government.
You might have heard that the House of Representatives passed a farm bill last week. Or possibly not. I have found that many Americans can go for a very long time without mentioning the farm bill. But we are going to talk about it today, and it will be absolutely fascinating.
For decades, Congress has merged food stamps — which help poor people pay for their groceries — with agricultural subsidies in one big, messy, bipartisan farm bill that made everybody happy. Well, not euphoric. There was definitely that messy factor. But it did merge the interests/needs of urban and rural lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans.
Lately, the House has begun chopping up big, complicated bills into what Speaker John Boehner once described as “bite-sized chunks that members can digest.” No more legislative sausage-making. No more bipartisan trading. The House was going to stick to clean, simple ideas, more along the lines of Liver Snaps.
So the farm bill got divided. The two parts were not equally tidy. As Ron Nixon reported in The Times, the rate of error and fraud in the agricultural crop insurance program is significantly higher than in the food stamp program. Also, the agriculture part has a lot of eyebrow-raising provisions, like the $147 million a year in reparations we send to Brazil to make up for the fact that it won a World Trade Organization complaint about the market-distorting effects of our cotton subsidies.
And while food stamps go to poor people, most of the farm aid goes to wealthy corporations.
So House Republicans passed the farm part and left food stamps hanging.
Tea Party conservatives have an all-purpose disdain for anything that smacks of redistribution of wealth, and food stamps are a prime target.
“The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity, is to take care of each other. But not for Washington to steal money from those in the country and give to others in the country,” Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., said during a speech in Memphis.
So the food stamp program was the total opposite of a Tasty Bite to House Republicans. More like that Scottish thing with sheep stomach and oatmeal. But the agriculture part was billed as delicious restraint. They rallied behind the just-farm-stuff bill in a party line 216-208 vote.
“This is a victory for farmers and conservatives who desired desperately needed reforms to these programs,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the majority leader.
The House bill actually spent more money on subsidies for farmers than the bipartisan Senate version the Republicans scorned. It also dropped the Senate’s limit on aid to farmers with incomes of more than $750,000 a year. And while it mimicked the Senate in dropping most of the much-derided direct payments to farmers, the House gave cotton farmers a two-year extension.
Let’s take a special look at cotton, which is a particularly good example of the tendency of agricultural benefits to flow uphill.
“Some of these guys — and they’re all guys — are getting more than $1 million in support. The bottom 80 percent are getting $5,000 on average,” said Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group.
Faber’s organization, which keeps careful track of these things, says direct payments to cotton farmers since 1995 have totaled $3.8 billion. That does not count the annual $147 million the United States has been sending to Brazil in hush money.
Crop insurance gets bigger under the new plan. Here’s how: You, the taxpayer, fork over the majority of the cost of the farmers’ policy premiums. (Up to 80 percent in the case of cotton.) Also, you spend about $1.3 billion a year to compensate the insurance agents for the fact that they have to sell coverage to any eligible farmer, whatever his prospects for success. Plus, if yields actually do drop, you have to compensate the insurance companies for part of the cost of claims.
Is this beginning to sound a little like Obamacare? No! No way! The House Republicans hatehatehate Obamacare! They vote to repeal it as often as they change their socks! Because Obamacare will, you know, distort the natural operation of the markets.
The larding of benefits to farmers didn’t come up during the House debate. It was all about food stamps, and Democrats asking to know why their colleagues wanted to cut aid to hungry children and old people. During an Agriculture Committee meeting on the bill, Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., quoted Jesus’ lesson that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
That raised Fincher’s hackles.
“Man, I really got bent out of shape,” he told that Memphis audience, proudly reporting that he countered with Thessalonians: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
By now, you must be wondering why I keep bringing up this guy. Fincher is a farmer who has, over the years, received $3.5 million in federal agricultural subsidies, much of it for — yes! — cotton.
Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.