Feb 04 2014
We’re better than this.
This Farm Bill is a monument to every dysfunction Washington indulges to bend our politics and twist our economy to benefit itself at the expense of the American people.
The topline talking point among defenders of this bill is the word “compromise.” “The Farm Bill,” we are told, “may be imperfect, but it’s a compromise we can all live with.”
They said, “Negotiators from both houses and both parties came together and hammered out a deal.”
They said, “This is how you get things done in Washington.”
There is some truth in this. But it’s more of a half truth. There absolutely is compromise in this thousand-page, trillion-dollar mess. But it’s not a compromise between House Republicans and Senate Democrats.
No, it’s collusion between both parties against the American people, it benefits the special interests at the expense of the national interest.
This bill does not demonstrate how to do things in Washington, but how to do things for Washington.
The final product before us is not just a legislative vehicle – it’s a legislative getaway car.
And what did they get away with?
Well, the Farm Bill is really two bills: one that spends about $200 billion to subsidize the agriculture industry, and another that spends $750 billion on the public assistance program previously known as Food Stamps.
The Farm Bill is thus a Beltway marriage of convenience between welfare and corporate welfare – ensuring the passage of both while preventing the reform of either.
Instead, Congress broke out the neck-bolts and sutures and put Frankenstein’s monster back together.
This was the year the Farm Bill was supposed to be different. This was supposed to be the year when we would finally split the bill into its logical, component pieces and subjected both of them to overdue scrutiny and reform.
This was the year we might have strengthened the Food Stamps program with work and other requirements for able-bodied adults, to help transition beneficiaries into full-time jobs.
This was the year we might have added an asset test, to make sure wealthy Americans with large personal bank accounts were no longer eligible for Food Stamps.
But those reforms aren’t here. Under this legislation, the Food Stamps program is not really reformed – just expanded. Once again, the give-and-take of compromise in Congress boils down to: the American people give, and Washington takes.
Yet if anything, Mr./Madam President, the other side of the bill is even worse.
Not only did the Conference Committee fail to reform programs subsidizing agriculture businesses, the Conference Committee removed many of the few improvements the House and Senate tried to include in the first place.
For instance, the Senate bill, for all its faults, included a novel provision to limit farm subsidies to actual farmers.
The Senate bill was also going to phase out crop insurance subsidies for wealthy individuals with an annual income of more than $750,000. Farmers who make three-quarters-of-a-million dollars a year, after all, should not need taxpayer assistance to keep their farms afloat.
The House bill included a transparency reform requiring members of Congress to disclose any subsidies they receive under the crop-insurance programs.
Yet all of the above reforms mysteriously disappeared from the final legislation.
And it’s not like the Farm Bill was a paragon of accountability and fairness to begin with. Agriculture policy follows a troubling trend in Washington: using raw political power to twist public policy against the American people, to profit political and corporate insiders.
For instance, under this legislation, the federal government will continue to force taxpayers to subsidize sugar companies, both in the law and at the grocery store.
This bill maintains the so-called “Dairy Cliff,” keeping dairy policy temporary. This will create an artificial crisis the next time we take up a Farm Bill, which will once again undermine thoughtful debate and reform.
Perhaps of all the shiny ornaments hung on this special interest Christmas Tree, the shiniest may be the actual cronyist hand-out to the Christmas tree industry itself.
Under this Farm Bill, small, independent Christmas tree farmers will now be required to pay a special tax to a government-created organization controlled by larger, corporate producers, like some medieval tribute to feudal lords.
These costs will of course be passed on to working families, and so every December, Washington will in effect rob the Cratchits to pay Mr. Scrooge and his lobbyists in Washington.
And yet, Mr./Madam President, even all this is squeaky-clean, legislating compared to this Farm Bill’s most offensive feature, it’s bullying, disenfranchising shake-down of the American West.
Most Americans who live east of the Mississippi have no idea that most of the land west of the Great River is owned by the federal government. I don’t mean national parks and protected wilderness and the rest. We’ve got a lot of those, and we love them. But that’s a fraction of a fraction of the land I’m talking about.
I’m just talking about garden variety land, the kind that is privately owned in every neighborhood and community in the country.
More than 50% of all the land west of the Mississippi River is controlled by a federal bureaucracy and cannot be developed. No homes. No businesses. No communities or community centers. No farms or farmers markets. No hospitals or colleges or schools. No little league fields or playgrounds. Nothing.
In my own state, it’s 63% of the land. In Daggett County, it’s 81%. In Wayne, it’s 85%. In Garfield, it’s 90%. Ninety percent of their land… isn’t theirs.
In communities like these, financing local government is a challenge. There, like in the east, local government is funded primarily by property taxes.
But in counties and towns where the federal government owns 70, 80, even 90% of all the land, there simply isn’t enough private property to tax to fund basic local services:
- another sheriff’s deputy to police their streets;
- another truck or ambulance to save their lives and property from fires;
- another teacher to educate their children.
To compensate local governments for the tax revenue Washington unfairly denies them, Congress created – as only Congress could - the PILT program, which stands for Payment In Lieu of Taxes. Under PILT, Congress sends a few cents on the dollar out west every year to make up for lost property taxes. There is no guaranteed amount. Washington just sends what it feels like.
Imagine if a citizen operated this way with with the IRS.
Local governments across the western United States, and especially in counties like Garfield, Daggett, and Wayne, Utah, completely depend on Congress making good on this promise.
Given this situation, there are three possible courses of congressional action.
First, Congress could do the right thing and transfer the land to the states that want it.
Second, Congress could compromise and fully compensate western communities for the growth and opportunity current law denies them.
But in this bill, it’s neither. Congress chooses option three: lording its power over western communities to extort political concessions from them, like some two-bit protection racket.
“That’s a nice fire department you got there,” Congress says to western communities. “Nice school your kids have. Be a shame if anything should happen to it.”
These states and communities are looking for nothing more than certainty and equality under the law. Yet Congress treats these not as rights to be protected, but vulnerabilities to be exploited.
I have been on the phone with county commissioners for weeks, who feel they have no choice but to support a policy they know doesn’t work. This bill takes away their ability to plan and budget with certainty, and forces them to come back to Congress, hat in hand, every year. County Commissioners know this is no way to run a community. I share their frustration, and I applaud their commitment to their neighbors and communities.
I’m convinced that in the long run, the best way to protect these communities is to find a real, permanent solution that gives them the certainty and equality they deserve.
My vote against the Farm Bill will be a vote to rescue Utahns from second-class citizenship, and local communities in my state from permanent dependence on the whims of faraway politicians.
Mr./Madam President, for all the talk we hear in this chamber about inequality, we nonetheless seem oblivious to its causes. This bill – and thousands of other bills, laws, and regulations like it – are the root cause of our shortage of opportunity in America today.
The end result of this legislation will be to disenfranchise and extort the American people to benefit special interests, to enrich the well-connected at the expense of the disconnected.
And the true cost of that transaction – just another forced deposit and withdrawal from Washington’s dysfunctional favor bank – is a lot more than $956 billion.
The true cost of this kind of unequal, cronyist policymaking is the trust of the American people: in the legitimacy of our political institutions, in the fairness of our economy, and in the good faith of their countrymen.
Our constitutional republic, our free enterprise economy, and our voluntary civil society depend absolutely on the equality of all Americans under the law, the equality of all citizens’ opportunity to pursue happiness in their own communities, according to their own values, each on a level playing field with everyone else.
This legislation subverts that principle, and mocks any patriot who still holds it dear.
All Americans may be equal, but as George Orwell might put it, under the Farm Bill some Americans are more equal than others.
I will not be a part of it. And I encourage my colleagues to recognize that there is another way, a better way, a new approach that remembers what – and who – we’re supposed to really stand for.
What we are supposed to stand for is deliberation – open debate and transparent amendment, on this floor.
These programs should not be coupled to shield them from scrutiny and reform.
If we need Food Stamps to fight poverty and farm subsidies to maintain our food supply, let those programs stand on their own merits or not at all.
Furthermore, the land out west is not going anywhere. This should be an opportunity to bring our people together, not turn our regions against each other, and turn the right to local government into a political football.
It’s time to have a serious debate about a permanent solution to federally owned lands that can improve economic opportunity and mobility while reducing the deficit. And all the evidence in this Farm Bill to the contrary, I believe we are capable of finding that solution.