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The Big Farm Scam

The President of the Environmental Working Group explains why the farm bill that just passed Congress represents a monumental opportunity lost.

| Fri May. 16, 2008 12:00 AM PDT

MJ: This gets a larger question of how conservatives in Congress, who supposedly value fiscal discipline and the free market, have let subsidies of this nature exist for so long.

KC: Both parties have abandoned principles they supposedly hold dear. The Democrats have abandoned their principle of standing up for the little guy and for fairness and not letting big operators scarf up all the money. Republicans have abandoned a principle equally central to their ideology, which is, we ought not to have the government involved in everyone's business to the degree they are, especially when someone is doing very well. I mean, here you have a president who vetoed S-CHIP for the sake of limiting the enrollment of families that he thought were too wealthy to enroll. He was alleging S-CHIP would let middle class families participate. Well, here we have the same kind of situation with agriculture but we're talking not about modest access to an insurance program, were talking about outright government grants, that don't even have to be repaid, of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

MJ: So what is it about the farm bill that makes both parties abandon their core principles?

KC: It's the intensity of a core group of subsidy recipients and a lobby they have nourished over the years to hang onto this money at all costs. And you've got this common interest amongst a fairly small number of legislators. Although every senator has agricultural constituents, the intensity to hang onto these abusive and wasteful programs is rooted in the Midwest and the South.

MJ: But you don't necessarily need to live in those regions to get subsidies, right?

KC: You can find recipients right here in DC. Absentee owners exist everywhere. Let's say you and I are brothers. You came to town to be a journalist, I came to work at an environmental group, but we both came from a farm family in Arkansas. If mom and dad give us 5,000 acres in their will, we don't have to go back down to Arkansas and farm. We'll get the direct payments automatically for that rice and cotton mom and dad kept growing, and on top of that we'll get other payments.

MJ: The relatively small number of lawmakers you mentioned always manage to find their way onto the agricultural committees in the House and Senate.

KC: Oh, yes. That is absolutely critical. We've published the names of all subsidy recipients online. If you just look at who is on the agriculture committees, their districts and states account for 40 or 50 percent of all the subsidy money.

MJ: That would explain why two-thirds of farmers nationwide don't get anything. They don't live in the right places.

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