Forget failed farm bill and seek big reforms
Congress couldn't pass a farm bill last week, and some observers see the inability to compromise as a sign of political dysfunction. Perhaps, but passage of another complex bill would have been nothing the average taxpayer and consumer should have cheered. It stalled over an attempt in the House to give states the right to add a work requirement to food aid for the able-bodied. Congress should start over, separate food aid to the needy from financial aid to agriculture, and take another look at sugar policies, something the failed bill assumed were fine as they are. Consider that the price of sugar has fallen sharply since last year. That would seem to be a good thing, but U.S. policy makes it bad news.Because the price is too low, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is spending $38 million to buy sugar to try to get domestic prices higher. That's necessary because if prices stay depressed, sugar producers might not be able to repay their loans. If they default, the U.S. government would take the collateral, which is 1.6 million tons of sugar. That could cost three times as much, or perhaps much more, depending on the future price of sugar. Lawmakers should rethink why sugar self-sufficiency is a top priority. The big sugar users in the soft drink and candy industries complain how unfair it is to them. High sugar prices hurt domestic producers of high-sugar items, thus help foreign-based candy companies steal U.S. jobs. But they can't be too upset because the federal government also gives big help to the junk food industry. Congress has agreed that the government should not tell folks what to eat. So it's OK to buy unlimited soda pop and sugary snacks through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps. Taxpayers spend about $4 billion a year on carbonated soft drinks, according to one estimate in 2010. It's only a guess because the government does not say what low-income shoppers are buying with their food stamps. About 80 percent of all the money spent in the farm bill goes for food aid to the poor. Most of the rest goes to very large agricultural businesses. It would seem logical to separate the two different forms of welfare and make it easier for the public to understand what's at stake. Until last week, farm supporters counted on the help of urban liberals to pass generous farm aid, which liberals gave in exchange for conservative help passing generous food aid. Why not write bills that stand alone on their merits? With about 20 percent of U.S. households qualifying for nutritional aid, there is room to tighten restrictions without causing hunger. And in the highly profitable agricultural industry, it seems possible to shift more of the market risks back to corporate farms and away from taxpayers. A new farm bill could find a safe way to get the government out of the sugar business. It could cut junk-food subsidies for the poor or at least keep track of them. It could give agriculture only what it needs and not all it wants. That bill could pass with overwhelming support.