Pork on the face of it

May 05, 2002

SINCE 1996, the United States has had a ludicrous farm-subsidy program that focused most of its largesse on big corporate enterprises and made it possible for such well-known farmers as Ken Lay ($6,019), Scottie Pippen ($26,315) and David Rockefeller ($134,556) to get federal assistance with the harvest out on the back 40.

But at least this program, conceived by Republicans, was based on the idea that someday, somehow, American farmers would be weaned from welfare.

Now Congress is in the midst of throwing even this pretense to the dusty wind. A new farm bill that simply turns on the cash spigot and keeps it permanently spiked open got final approval from the House of Representatives last week and is due for a Senate vote this week. It's an unabashed return to the old pork barrel. It's honest pork, because it doesn't pretend to be anything else, but it's a disgrace that will cost American taxpayers an additional $73 billion over the next 10 years.

Think of any special interest in agriculture; it gets its billions in this bill. This year, America's peanut farmers, to take one example, managed to get by with no subsidies, and theirs is a healthy sector. Over the next 10 years, they're in line for $4 billion.

How did this travesty happen?

Over the winter, the House and Senate each passed a bill. Then when a conference committee met to reconcile the differences, somehow a whole lot more money started to get thrown around. For instance, the old subsidy program was heavily tilted toward the Midwest and Great Plains states. The new bill solves that problem by wasting money in the South and Northeast as well. That's where the peanuts come in. A $1.7 billion nod to the dairy farmers of New England did the trick there.

Did somebody say election year? How about sugar subsidies in Florida?

Support for this bill in the House was nonpartisan - that is to say, members who don't particularly stand for anything were happy to vote for it. Equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats voted in favor.

Disgracefully, six Maryland representatives were in favor; only Democrat Benjamin Cardin and Republican Connie Morella voted no.

To be sure, any bill that envisions the expenditure of $180 billion over a decade has to have a few worthy targets. Some family farms will get help, though the vast majority of the money will go to major conglomerates. Some land will be set aside for conservation, though the overall effect of the bill will be to encourage intensive chemical-based agriculture that will take a further toll on the environment.

The Senate should do the right thing and reject this heap of handouts, but it will be a major surprise if it does. President Bush, who has said he'll sign the bill, might pause to remember that Republicans are supposed to stand for a free market. As for ordinary Americans, the entire nation would do well to remember this shameful lunge at the public treasury.

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