Reforming federal farm policy is like training a cat. You will be met with either hostility or indifference.
Actually, it's worse. There are workable techniques for training a cat. But they don't work well on congressmen.
Anyway, Congress has embarked on its twice-a-decade exercise in rewriting the federal farm bill. One of many issues is limiting the subsidies that any one farm can receive.
Who would oppose barring millionaires from the federal trough? You'd be surprised.
Most farm subsidies go to growers of five commodity crops: corn, wheat, rice, cotton and soybeans. Commodity crop subsidies made up 78 percent of the $165 billion in farm payments between 1995 and 2005, according to the Environmental Working Group's fabulously informative farm subsidy database.
The grand champion in that period was Riceland Foods, Inc., of Arkansas, which collected half a billion dollars, mainly in rice subsidies.
That's not an isolated example. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has proposed annual subsidy payment caps of $250,000, estimates that 10 percent of farms collect 72 percent of payments.
But fighting the crop subsidy lobby is hard. Not even political uber-genius Karl Rove could stand up to them. In 2001, the Bush administration proposed sweeping farm policy reform. Under harsh counterattack in Congress, the administration wilted like a wheat field in a hailstorm. President Bush signed a $190 billion farm bill that enraged conservative deficit hawks.
This time, those hawks are part of an odd alliance that just might make headway knocking farm subsidies down. Others in the alliance include conservation groups, family farmer advocates, anti-poverty activists, and growers of "specialty crops" -- fruit and vegetable growers who are not eligible for crop subsidies. Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, is old school on farm policy, but is feeling the heat. Peterson has proposed ending payments for any farm operation with adjusted gross income of $1 million or more.
That's a little on the tepid side. The Bush administration's proposal would set the adjusted gross income limit at $200,000.
There's another difference. Peterson's income cutoff would apply to all farm programs, including conservation programs that pay farmers to conserve soil and protect water quality.
An argument can be made that the cutoff should not apply to conservation, since those programs, unlike crop subsidies, have broad societal benefits. Conservation programs are popular, and most farmers who want to participate are turned away for lack of funding.
So, why not cut crop subsidies for the few and redirect some of the savings to conservation for the many? President Bush likes that idea and it has bipartisan support in Congress.
But the farm policy status quo is like a tough weed. It will take hard work and the right set of political circumstances to root it out.
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