Ag Policy Blog

Drain the Swamp or Drain the Farm Safety Net?

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Conservative groups, columnists, bloggers and right-minded thinkers have all embraced the concept of "drain the swamp" and in doing so these folks have set their sights on you.

So could a president-elect who won with strong support from rural America actually pull the drain on the farm safety net?

In their desire to make that swamp suitable, free thinkers want to begin with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In column Monday in the Wall Street Journal by James Bovard, a self-declared libertarian, writes that President-elect Donald Trump would do well starting with the federal aid to farmers.

"Whoever Mr. Trump names as his agriculture secretary should target wasteful farm programs for spending cuts."…

The column points to a Congressional Budget Office projection that federal aid to farmers will "soar to $19 billion in 2017" and further, that, "Farmers will receive twice as much of their income from handouts (25%) this year as they did in 2013, according to the USDA."

The $19 billion figure cited by Bovard comes from a combined total of all commodity programs, ($5 billion); conservation programs ($5.677 billion); and crop insurance ($8.483 billion) in projected outlays for 2017 under the farm bill.…

Bovard, in his haste to make his point about farm subsidies, did neglect to point out that net farm income, according to USDA, is 46% lower than 2013 -- $123.7 billion in 2013 compared to a forecast of $66.9 billion in 2016.

Another column attacking farm programs showed up last week in the Hill, a Capitol Hill news site. Alison Costa Winters writes, "If America is really serious about 'draining the swamp' in Washington, then removing harmful policies and rent-seeking behaviors up which corporate welfare and cronyism are built should be a high priority for Congress. Such policies include the numerous, costly subsidy programs that go toward agriculture."…

Costa Winters, by the way, works for the Charles Koch Institute. Yes, there's a small connection between the people who fund the institute and the really big company that likes to sell fertilizer and other inputs to farmers.

It also should be pointed out, however, that the Ag secretary doesn't "target" farm programs for spending cuts. Farm programs are crafted by Congress, which details in great specificity how USDA should implement programs such as ARC and PLC. Congress sets the cap on what should be paid and lawmakers get irked when USDA seeks to tighten payment eligibility through entity and actively-engaged rules.

When the Ag secretary does step in with a plan to save money, it is often frowned upon. The current Agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, renegotiated crop-insurance contracts in 2010, cutting $6 billion away from insurance payments over following 10 years.…

Vilsack did such a good job trimming insurer profits in the contract that Congress added language to the 2014 farm bill blocking him from doing that again.

Lawmakers also have repeatedly stopped USDA from cutting local Farm Service Agency offices -- even if the office has one person who works there part-time. I once watched a senator pull out a map of Arkansas in a hearing just to show Vilsack that farmers in one particularly county would indeed drive more than 20 miles to get to another FSA office if USDA attempted to eliminate it.

The ability to defend spending on farm programs was reflected just over a year ago when President Barack Obama and then-Speaker John Boehner cut a budget deal that cut crop insurance expenses $3 billion over 10 years, or $375 million a year. Members of the House Agriculture Committee literally sprinted out of hearings to team up and block the cuts from taking effect.…

So only someone who is blessedly unknowledgeable would think that an Agriculture secretary has the power to simply sign a paper and eliminate or cut farm programs.

Still, this push to drain the swamp also has caused conservative groups to step up their support for outgoing Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, to serve as the new Agriculture secretary under Trump. FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C., based group, is among those arguing the best way for Trump to drain the swamp is to hire Huelskamp for USDA.

“Farm bills passed by Congress promote a culture of cronyism and corporate welfare that must end. Rep. Huelskamp stood up to these big government policies, and the Washington political elite sought a pound of flesh," stated Adam Brandon, CEO of FreedomWorks, in a news release on Monday. FreedomWorks cited a pair of conservative blogs backing Huelskamp as a reflection that right-minded thinkers have their guy in Huelskamp.

Huelskamp was sent packing out of Congress largely because he was kicked off the House Agriculture Committee and the farm groups in Kansas got tired of him. Huelskamp also didn't vote against the farm bill because of farm policy or crop insurance. Huelskamp did not like the spending on nutrition programs such as SNAP.…

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greg schimkat
12/14/2016 | 8:37 AM CST
For every dollar that is pulled from farm programs there should be a dollar pulled from city type programs. Let's get started.
12/14/2016 | 7:19 AM CST
Good Answer Jay!! Now I know where Hillary got the idea of uneducated America.
Jay Mcginnis
12/14/2016 | 6:36 AM CST
All I have t say is Trump U!
12/13/2016 | 12:15 PM CST
Jay, You need to just quit commenting. Do you listen to yourself. You are blaming all this crap on Trump and he hasn't even taken office yet. This messed up country is all Obamas' baby. There is so much wasted spending on some of the farm programs but they were not created by Trump.
12/13/2016 | 6:39 AM CST
Trump plans more spending for military an bridges an roads plus giving tax breaks to the rich so deficits will go up. Ag is a small part of this the nation needs a steady food supply plus put money in a farmers hand they will spend it on American products
Jay Mcginnis
12/12/2016 | 9:57 PM CST
Why is anyone surprised? Trump is out to make himself richer and give his fellow billionaires tax breaks.
Jay Mcginnis
12/12/2016 | 9:52 PM CST
Maybe farmers could benefit from free tuition at Trump U?
12/12/2016 | 9:30 PM CST
Chris: Agricultural and other programs need to be reigned in. I benefit from the programs, but I think all of the spending has done and is doing great harm to our economy in general. We cannot be single-minded; the country's future is more important than agricultural or other programs. We have $20 T of debt overhanging out economy and we are running a deficit this year of $700 B. There will be a day of reckoning. Some call for tax increases. The problem is we cannot raise taxes high enough to support all of the programs. If we tried to do that, we would force our economy into a severe depression, as it would clobber the two major components of our GDP - consumer spending and investment spending. The country is bigger than agriculture, Chris, and we all need to understand that. If we lose the economy, then we would really see what carnage in the agricultural sector really looks like.