My Kingdom for a Peanut

Poking fun at United States agricultural policy is low hanging fruit. From catfish to sushi to alfalfa, most agriculture industries are handsomely subsidized via the half-a-trillion dollar farm bill. So after the House’s 195-234 defeat of its version of the bill, what’s the proverbial forest to see for the trees, as The Wall Street Journal put it in an editorial this morning?

While their Senatorial counterparts were able to bribe enough lobbyists and fellow Senate members with regional- and crop-specific goodies to push through a largess bill last week, some members of the House are calling for a larger debate.

As the WSJ notes, Representative Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) introduced an amendment that was quickly disposed of by the House Committee on Rules which would have split the farm bill into a farm-only bill and a nutrition-only bill.

According to OECD estimates, total government support for the United States agriculture sector cost over $146 billion in 2011. This for an industry that adds just under $174 billion in value to the United States’ total GDP. Eighty percent of the “farm” bill’s provisions go to food stamps though, a program which enrolls 14 percent of Americans. This unholy marriage rolls two much-needed debates into one opaque, 629-page (1052 pages in the Senate’s case) piece of legislation.

Stutzman’s amendment would have allowed more open debate on both policies; instead of decrying the inclusion of a Christmas tree promotional campaign, we could debate the best way to make sure the country’s impoverished receive proper nutrition via food stamps. More importantly, we could talk about ways to get them off food stamps and into the work force.

Instead, our government has been reduced to a trough of money, where “bipartisanship” means being able to conjure up enough votes via district- or state-specific handouts to pass another pork-filled slab of legislation.

At CEI’s annual dinner last night, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) recognized as much in his keynote speech. He called upon the Republican party to stop stigmatizing citizens on government assistance; instead, he said it is the government’s duty to provide avenues for them to join (or rejoin) the middle class. Some form of food stamps and crop insurance both provide welfare to society — food security, in two senses of the phrase.

Meanwhile, Stutzman, who represents a rural Indiana district, also represents an increasing number of Americans who aren’t looking for government handouts but for government reform. He could have lined up at the trough with other congressmen, carving out a tasty, lucrative provision for Indiana’s third district. Instead, he tried to open the floor to debate on farm and nutrition policy.

And isn’t that the purpose of government? Not to write omnibus legislation holding up an entire industry that makes up one percent of the economy, but to facilitate legitimate debate about the best way to enable prosperity. Instead, government is bankrupting the future for catfish and peanuts. More importantly, it’s finding itself bankrupt of ideas on how to provide for that very future. At least I can enjoy some good Louisiana catfish tonight though.