Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Deck is Depressingly Stacked Against Subsidy Reformers

It's long been known that folks who support significant reforms to state and federal subsidy programs face a really uphill battle.  They're easily demagogued as "anti-farm/environment/jobs/whatever," and taxpayer subsidies are a classic case of "concentrated benefits and diffuse costs," with subsidy recipients far more organized and motivated than reformers (and Joe Taxpayer) to push their agendas through the government.  However, there is another reason why real subsidy reform is so darn difficult: government benefactors brazenly rig the game in favor of their cronies.

And during last week's House debate on the bloated, subsidy-packed Farm Bill, we got a rare glimpse into one way that the riggers do it.

Before I get to that, however, a little background is necessary.  You may recall that in late-December of last year Congress passed a slew of temporary extensions to certain farm subsidy programs in order to avoid what the media dubbed the "Dairy Cliff."  Congress' motivation for this last-minute action was suddenly-intense media attention and fear of voter backlash to the skyrocketing milk and other commodity prices that would've resulted from the subsidies’ expiration and the resumption of a dormant 1949 farm law that fixed food prices well above current levels.  (A good summary of the mess is here, if you're interested.)

With this in mind, let's now fast-forward to last week's House debate over the new Farm Bill.  In order to avoid another "Dairy Cliff" when/if the bill expired, an enterprising congressman – Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) – proposed an amendment to the House version of the Farm Bill that would repeal the dairy provisions of the 1949 law, thus protecting US consumers from the threat of sky-high dairy prices.  Although passage of such an amendment would seem like a no-brainer, this is Congress, and Broun's amendment was easily defeated by a bipartisan vote of 309-112.  Apparently the House has no desire to prevent another Dairy Cliff in the future, and in a rare moment of candor, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) - former Chair of the House Agriculture Committee and arguably the US Farm Lobby's BFF - explained why he has worked to keep the 1949 law - a ticking time bomb embedded in US agriculture policy -  on the books.  In rising to oppose Broun's amendment, Peterson stated:
When I was chairman and did the last farm bill, we maintained the permanent law, and we did it for a reason, which is that it is very hard to get these farm bills done, and sometimes you need some motivation to get people to move. That's the main reason we left it there.
In short, Rep. Peterson admitted on the House floor that congressional refusal to repeal the 1949 law - and its hidden threat of high prices, market uncertainty and serious consumer pain - is solely intended to extort new (or extended) farm subsidies out of future Congresses.  And, as last December showed, it's quite the effective strategy.  So, it seems that, for Rep. Peterson and his subsidy-loving friends in Congress, not only do you "never let a serious crisis go to waste," but if such a crisis doesn't appear naturally, you just hardwire one into US law.  Simply amazing.

As Cato's Sallie James explained on Friday, "so long as this [1949] law is part of the national legislative fabric, we’ll have a dairy cliff (or some other commodity-themed cliff) every five years."  And, instead of actually deliberating the cost and merit of our bloated, archaic farm subsidy programs, sheepish Members of Congress will simply approve those subsidies in order to avoid the media scrutiny and voter backlash that these intentional "cliffs" inevitably produce.

More broadly, this is the uphill battle that subsidy reformers face.  Not only is the playing field severely titled in favor of subsidy recipients due to the simple nature of subsidies and politics, but many of the supposed referees in Congress have intentionally rigged the game even further in the recipients' favor.  It's this kind of institutional disadvantage that makes real change extremely difficult (if not impossible), regardless of the overwhelming evidence in support of reform.

Hopefully, a little scrutiny of revealing statements like Peterson's will help tilt the playing field back a little bit, but I'm not holding my breath.

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