Bush does right thing (gasp!) on farm bill

The presidency of George W. Bush has been such a disaster that complaining about all the atrocities gets downright monotonous.

But every once in a great while, as if some cell of sanity bubbles to the surface of his cerebral cortex, he finds himself on the right side of an important issue. Kind of like the broken clock that's right twice a day.

Last week was one of those times, as he exercised his barely used veto pen to stop a bipartisan $307 billion farm bill so loaded with pork and giveaways to special interests that even he couldn't stand the smell.

Bush complained that the bill gave away subsidies to millionaire farmers who didn't need the help. I kind of wish he had used that same logic with his tax cuts before running up $3 trillion on the national credit card. But that's another story.

These agriculture bills are notorious for giving away generous benefits in order to bolster the political careers of farm-state lawmakers. The plight of the family farmer, fighting to stay on his land, is the image they project to move these bills forward. The reality is that little money goes to those family farmers, but instead the big bucks go to large operations that don't need the help.

The current farm bill has some good items in it, like relief for farmers and ranchers suffering the effects of drought and wildfires.

But it also has a tax break for breeders of racing horses in Kentucky, just in time to help the reelection efforts of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

There are good reasons for the government to offer incentives to farmers in order to manage the agriculture production in this country. This is an industry that can be prone to big booms and even bigger busts. But unlike other sectors, a big bust in agriculture could lead to a lot of people starving to death.

But over the years, these programs have been twisted into a system of corporate welfare, where profits mean more than feeding people.

When I was a teenager, I worked for a while picking tobacco in northwest Missouri. It paid better than other farm work, and was easier than throwing around 80-pound bales of hay. The reason it paid better is because all of the tobacco we picked was purchased by the U.S. government. While the money was nice, I can't help thinking that subsidizing tobacco had no redeeming value other than boosting some politician's campaign.

There has never been a better time to reform this system. The price of corn has tripled in the last six years. Wheat and rice prices have gone up five-fold. Total farm income is up 50 percent. Food prices around the world are soaring, and riots have broken out in some places.

Yet Congress thinks they need to spend our money to pay farmers to not grow crops, so that food prices can go up even more? Someone should ask them what kind of produce they've been smoking.

The current farm bill contains $5 billion in guaranteed direct payments to farmers regardless of the prices they are getting for their crops. It's this kind of disconnection from economic reality that not only makes this legislation a waste of our money, but it eventually hurts the people it's supposed to help. It creates an agriculture system where farmers harvest government checks, not crops.

It should also be noted that the bulk of subsidies go to help producers of not-entirely-healthy crops like corn and beef, while fruit and vegetable farmers receive little if anything. Seems you could reduce the nation's health care bill by reversing those priorities.

While Bush did veto the bill, Congress has more than enough votes to override, so this pork will be hitting dinner tables in time for November's election. I would recommend a nice bottle of Pinot Noir to wash it down, along with some Pepto Bismol when you get the bill.

• Kirk Caraway writes for Swift Communications, Inc. He can be reached through his blog at http://kirkcaraway.com.


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