EDITORIAL: Federal farm bill has become expensive means to buy favor

This is a farm bill year — get ready to lose money.

Congress cobbles together a new farm bill every five years; the current measure, enacted in 2018, expires on Sept. 30. Lawmakers already are working on a new version, and interested parties already are lined up and clamoring for a share of the federal pie.

The first farm bill was enacted during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years to help farmers deal with lost revenue and crop failures. Since then it has become bloated package of a dozen bills that range from crop subsidies to federal welfare programs including school meals and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which still is popularly called the food stamp program.

There’s even a component that doesn’t deal directly with agriculture but with rural development, which funds construction of hospitals, libraries and other municipal infrastructure.

Agriculture is a tough business, affected by the whims of nature that at times can be cruel; Rio GrandeValley growers frequently deal with losses due to drought, floods and disease or parasites — sometimes all in the same year. But the industry has developed over the years and many growers have crop insurance that help mitigate those losses.

However, once the federal funding spigot has been opened, it’s almost impossible to shut if off — in fact, the crowd of supplicants only grows with the allocations. This year a new group growers of specialty crops has jumped into the fray. And even while they insist they can’t survive without federal help, they spend billions of dollars on lobbying efforts.

Elements of the bill protect some growers by fighting the importation of foreign produce or actually paying some farmers not to grow crops in order to keep prices high. This hits consumers twice — once in the taxes they pay for the subsidies and again through the artificially inflated prices.

Much of the farm bill budget funds federal food programs, pairing the agricultural subsidies with that acquisition of commodities that are used for school lunch and other programs. Reports show that in some areas of the industry the process has become so lucrative that it promotes unnecessary activity. Stories have been told of dairy farmers who have more cows the federal dollars.

Even as the government calls these nutrition programs, several studies — including by the government itself — show that they actually affect national health negatively. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages those programs, reports that 23% of SNAP spending is on sweetened drinks, desserts, candy and other junk food. It also found that 40% of SNAP recipients were obese, compared to 32% of the general population. Those higher obesity rates contribute to other expenses through higher medical costs.

The Congressional Research Service reports that the 2018 farm bill budget was $867.3 billion. Five years later, the baseline for the farm bill being considered is $1.43 trillion.

Efforts to stem runaway growth in federal spending could start with the farm bill, but it must begin with people resisting the temptation to beg for money they might not need.