Busting the farm scam

February 08, 2005

DESPERATE TIMES call for desperate measures, which may explain why President Bush seems to have turned on his rural, red-state supporters, proposing to slash farm aid in his drive to shrink the gaping federal budget deficit.

No matter what his motives, though, cracking down on the much-abused agriculture subsidy program is a very good idea.

Critics are already complaining that the president has launched a frontal assault on that most sacred of cows - the family farm. But Mr. Bush is actually proposing to do quite the opposite. He's aimed his sights at the giant agribusiness operations that have gobbled up and replaced many family farms, which simply can't compete with the economies of scale that give an advantage to the big guys.

Two-thirds of federal crop subsidies go to the wealthiest 10 percent of agriculture businesses, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization, because government payments increase with farm size and sales. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, calls agriculture subsidies the nation's biggest corporate welfare program.

In the 2006 budget unveiled yesterday, Mr. Bush proposed to cut the annual limit on farm subsidy payments to $250,000 from the current $360,000, as well as to close loopholes that make it easy to evade the limits and collect millions of dollars in subsidies for a single farm - sometimes by people not even involved in active farming.

These steps could relieve pressure on smaller operations, such as the nearly 7,000 farms in Maryland, none of which collects subsidies that aren't well below the proposed maximum. Kicking the farm conglomerates off the dole, a bit anyway, might also benefit land conservation programs, which are financed out of the same fund.

President Bush is a new convert to this cause. He signed into law the so-called Freedom to Farm bill in 2002 that substantially beefed up a subsidy program that was already bloated, bowing to election-year pressures from farm-state lawmakers and looking ahead to his own re-election contest.

But now, when he is trying to finance U.S. operations in Iraq while protecting his tax cuts and reducing the deficit, Mr. Bush is looking for savings in a lot of spots where politicians normally fear to tread.

We quarrel with many of his other choices, but when it comes to political ransom for farm fat cats, Mr. Bush is right on target.

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