Farm handouts

Of all the indefensible waste that pours from the halls of Congress, the billions of dollars in annual agricultural handouts emit the foulest stench. Earlier this year, President Bush tried to scale back the giveaways by cutting off wealthy farmers from taxpayer subsidies. Congressional piggies ran roughshod over his insistence on a $200,000 income cap, overriding the president’s veto of a $290 billion pork fest.

Now we know that such a modest reform would have done nothing to pry rich farmers from the taxpayers’ teat. The Government Accountability Office reported Monday that more than 2,700 millionaires received direct payments between 2003 and 2006. They got a total of $49 million over that period despite the passage of a $2.5 million income cap in 2002.

That cap was supposed to prevent individuals and farming conglomerates from receiving subsidies if their three-year adjusted gross income exceeded an average of $2.5 million, but granted an exemption if at least 75 percent of that income was derived from farming, ranching and forestry. According to the GAO, none of those 2,700 millionaires met the conditions of that exemption. Worse, the Agriculture Department had noted in its own databases that 87 of these recipients were clearly ineligible for direct payments, then cut the checks anyway. And it’s not clear whether any of those who wrongly received the checks are legitimate farmers in the first place.

Among the beneficiaries, who by law can’t be identified by the GAO:

— A part-owner of a professional sports franchise, who received more than $200,000 over the four-year period.

— A top executive in a major financial services firm, who got more than $60,000 in 2003.

— A technology company executive, who received about $80,000 over the four-year period.

— An insurance company founder, who got a cool $300,000 in each of the four years.

Agriculture Department officials whined that the report wasn’t fair because GAO investigators were able to access IRS returns to confirm income ineligibility. John Johnson, the USDA’s deputy administrator of the Farm Service Agency, says a data-sharing system is being devised with input from the IRS to improve oversight and eligibility verification.

So to improve the distribution of wasteful spending, the federal government will spend even more money to make sure bureaucracies talk to each other? Here’s an idea: Scrap the entire monstrosity.

Rather than pay the producers of wheat, corn, sugar and other agricultural products to grow — or not grow — their crops, thereby protecting farmers from cheaper imports while driving up food costs for consumers, the federal government should finally force American farmers to compete in the marketplace. Now more than ever, with commodity prices high, the public hurting and the federal government buried in debt, welfare payments to wealthy people who have nothing to do with agricultural operations must end.

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