November 30, 2008 at 9:33AM
by Jim DiPeso
Many years ago, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story, "Dial Double Zero," about a creepy life form emerging within the telephone system and harassing a guy minding his own business.
That's similar to what has happened with the federal budget an inanimate object has taken on an intrusive life of its own.
As part of his economic recovery plan, President-elect Obama has promised to put the beast on a weight-loss program. Many of Obama's predecessors have made similar vows, yet the fiscal metastasis has continued. Still, in the face of a deficit likely to exceed a trillion dollars, Obama is right to have a go at it.
At the end of a weekend of turkey sandwiches and leftover sweet potatoes, farm subsidies are as good a place as any for Obama's federal slimming program to begin.
Giving an example of government waste earlier this week, Obama mentioned a new Government Accountability Office report about $49 million splashed out on farm subsidy payments to the ineligible.
Certainly, no one wants federal money going to people who are not eligible to receive it. But that sort of misses the point. Even when farm subsidies work as the law directs, they are in a league of their own in the annals of fiscal absurdity.
Farm policy is a sticky wicket of price targets, crop loans, insurance programs, disaster assistance, export promotion, payments to millionaires, and what-not that burdens taxpayers, causes environmental harm, and complicates our trade relationships. The farm program will cost an estimated $286 billion between now and 2013, when the latest bloated, outdated spawn of Great Depression farm policy expires.
We have Nancy Pelosi and a bipartisan cast in Congress to thank for blowing a great opportunity last year to reform the farm program and drag it, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.
There is far too much wrong with farm policy to do the topic justice in a holiday weekend blog entry. One example will do for now direct payments. This is the program that pays regardless of the recipient farmers' economic situation, regardless of what they grow or whether they grow anything at all.
Between 2002 and 2006, more than $22 billion in direct payments were forked over, to deserving and undeserving alike, according to Environmental Working Group's fabulous farm subsidies data base
. The pork is dyed both red and blue the top 10 congressional districts for receiving direct payments are represented by 5 Republicans and 5 Democrats.
Obama says that neither party has a monopoly on political wisdom. He might have added that neither has a monopoly on fiscal malfeasance. Which will make his job of trying to enforce budget discipline that much harder.
Given the challenges ahead, Obama may want to avoid that Bradbury tale. At the end, the main character loses his battle with the telephone life form, which then starts dialing the White House.