A Bipartisan Taxpayer Raid
The farm bill is the real reason Members were cheering Tuesday night.
Start with the fact that the subsidy programs are still linked to food stamps. House conservatives last summer revolted to force the chamber to separate the two, in an attempt to end to the unholy alliance of urban Democrats and rural Republicans that sustains the growth of both. The conferees negotiated a remarriage.
Republicans also caved on a House provision to limit the food-stamp reauthorization to three years, which would have required a debate on a separate timetable from farm subsidies in the future. The final bill reauthorizes everything for five years, setting the stage for a logrolling repeat.
As for food stamps, the House bill had reduced future 10-year spending by $39 billion—a mere 5%—in a program that has doubled in cost since 2008 and is now about $80 billion a year. The "compromise" settles for a cut of $8 billion over 10 years (1%), which is barely larger than Senate Democrats' opening bid of $4 billion.
The elated conferees are bragging that they closed a food-stamp "loophole," but that's a rosy interpretation. "Heat and eat" is a classic liberal spending tactic by which states direct small home-heating assistance checks to households solely to make those households eligible for food stamps.
The reform requires that households receive all of $20 in annual federal heating assistance (rather than today's $1) to trigger benefits. They must be laughing at that one in the grocery lobby. Meanwhile, Republicans abandoned reforms that would have tightened the program, such as making food-stamp eligibility contingent upon asset tests (as used to be the case) or work requirements (as under welfare reform).
The farm crew is also boasting they eliminated the "direct payment" program—handouts that go to growers whether they produce a crop or not. Yet the $5 billion in savings is rolled back into the government-subsidized (and uncapped) crop-insurance program as well as a new "shallow-loss" program that guarantees farmers' revenues and could balloon to $14 billion a year.
Speaker John Boehner is getting credit for winning his showdown with Collin Peterson over the Minnesota Democrat's demand for a new Soviet-style program to manage U.S. milk supply. The conferees stripped that stinker, but they salved Mr. Peterson's feelings by fiddling with a separate insurance program as an alternate means to give government control over milk production.
Handouts to agribusiness and millionaires? Continued trade protectionism for the sugar industry? It's all still there. Heritage Foundation research fellow Daren Bakst notes that the GOP even rolled over for President Obama's Christmas tree tax, which demands a 15-cent assessment on every fresh-cut Christmas tree, to fund an industry promotional program.
Republicans get credit for keeping the bill free of earmarks, and for bucking Democratic demands that the bill's savings go to more spending, rather than deficit reduction. But with the Congressional Budget Office reporting on Tuesday that the bill saves a pathetic $16.5 billion over 10 years (rather than the $23 billion negotiators claimed), these are linings without much silver.
The apparent GOP political calculation is that it needs an election-year farm bill to solidify its rural-voter support and to ward off President Obama's attacks that they are mean to poor people. Talk about premature surrender. Unlike the autumn government shutdown, the farm bill did give them real political leverage. Democrats and Mr. Obama want food stamps and a farm bill. Republicans could have held out at least for some reform progress. The main achievement of this bill will be to re-elect Mr. Peterson, the Democrat, and give more GOP voters reason to wonder why they elected these guys.
Oh, and it's no accident that Congress dropped this porker under the cover of State of the Union hoopla. GOP leaders are eager to leave town for their annual retreat and to avoid a conservative revolt. So they are planning a vote Wednesday morning, fewer than 48 hours after it was unveiled.
So much for Mr. Boehner's promise to run a more transparent Congress and allow 72 hours for Members to read what they are voting on. The American people elected a GOP House not merely to oppose the Obama agenda, but to stand for real reform. They deserve a lot better than this.
I believe the President did refer to his as an example of Bi-partianship.