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The new Five-Year Plan

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted February 11, 2002

Despite rhetoric about curbing wasteful government boondoggles -- subsidy programs that actually increase the shelf price of groceries to the poorest Americans -- the U.S. Congress is in the process of unraveling a hard-won 1996 law that would have weaned American farmers off federal subsidies.

(So much for the "Republican Revolution.")

Overall, the new socialist agricultural Five-Year Plan will increase federal spending on agricultural subsidies, price-supports ... even payments to grow nothing at all ... by $45 billion over five years.

(Good thing there's no recession ... and no deficit.)

But as a small sop to taxpayers -- to make the whole scheme look slightly less obscene -- the Senate voted Feb. 7 to cap annual federal subsidies at $275,000 per "farm family," while also making the nation's richest farmers ineligible for federal crop support.

"There have to be limits," said Don Nickles, R-Okla. "If not, we are going to allow people to make millions off of these programs."

Recipients of hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal farm payments over recent years have included such Fortune 500 companies as Chevron Corp. and International Paper Co. and wealthy urbanites such as Charles Schwab, who heads a nationwide brokerage firm, lives in San Francisco and owns a rice and cotton farm in California's Glenn County, according to an Internet database set up by the Environmental Working Group, an environmental watchdog organization.

A Florida real estate developer who controls 130,000 acres of farm and ranch land received at least $1.2 million in subsidies for his 2000 crop, The Associated Press reports.

"Capping farm payments will restore integrity to farm programs," said farm state Sen. Charles. E. Grassley, R-Iowa, apparently with a straight face.

With even such multiple winners of the Silver Sow Award thus climbing aboard, surely no senator would be brazen enough to argue that $275,000 per family wouldn't be enough free government money ... right?

Think again. Thirty-one senators tried to derail this modest restriction on payments that often go to wealthy urban fat cats who haven't felt black dirt between their toes since they were in nursery school. Most of the dissidents were from the South, where cotton and rice interests are particularly dependent on federal subsidies.

"Do you know what this farm bill says to the South? Hold still, little catfish, all I'm going to do is just gut you," Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., said.

"Farmers need more support and higher prices because their costs are forever rising," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. "Farmers are going out of business and rural towns are heading for the abyss."

Now, a certain number of pro forma "fighting words" to demonstrate an appropriate level of dedication to the cause for the benefit of the Folks Back Home are always to be expected. But ironically enough, backers of the subsidy cap point out that big government payments, by driving up land prices, have actually been helping large producers push smaller farmers out of business.

"The single most effective thing Congress could do to strengthen the fabric of rural communities and family farms across the nation is to stop subsidizing megafarms that drive their neighbors out of business by bidding land away from them," said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.

The subsidy cap is worth enacting, as a clear case of "better than nothing." But in fact, there is one far more effective thing Congress could do: Stick with the plan it OK'd in 1996. Let American housewives and food processors and textile mills (if there are any left) buy cheaper imported rice and cotton and sugar (ending the flight of candy manufacturers and their jobs over the border to Canada, for starters) while giving American farmers a date certain by which they'll have to shift to crops which they can successfully grow at competitive, free-market prices.

Isn't that what we keep telling the residents of the former Communist bloc they've got to do? Comrades?

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. For information on his monthly newsletter and on his next book, "The Ballad of Carl Drega," dial 775-348-8591.

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