“Those that respect the law and love sausage should watch neither being made.”
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Seeing as how Mark Twain was so far ahead of his time, he was very likely talking about the $100-billion-a-year Farm Bill passed this week by the House on a weird, bipartisan vote.
The bill included some wonderful items — like the continued federal payments to small, rural areas like Gila County where the federal government owns all the land and pays none of the taxes — impoverishing counties, schools and towns. That’s great — but the way in which such an essential program got caught up like a woodchuck in a stampede of elephants demonstrates the truth of Twain’s aphorism.
But alas, the 10-year, nearly $1 trillion bill represented a blood sausage mix of corporate welfare for wealthy farmers and Food Stamps for poor families.
Congress has been mud wrestling in the details of the bill for two years. Much of the stand-off pitted Republican demands to protect or even expand subsidies for farmers against Democratic refusal to cut the growth of the run-away Food Stamp program.
So in the end, they traded hostages — the Republicans swallowed only minor cuts in farm subsidies; the Democrats warded off any significant cuts in Food Stamps.
The House approved the measure on a 251-166 vote. The sausage-making got so strange and untidy that both far-right Republican Paul Gosar (R-Prescott) and far-left Democrat Raul Grijalva (D-Tucson) voted against the bill.
So after two years of effort, ambitious pledges to reform and intense lobbying — the bill mostly preserves the status quo. But consider some of the meat, gristle, filler and brain bits that went into this greasy mess.
In 2005, before the recession, the Supplemental Nutritional Benefits Paid (SNAP) program cost about $29 billion annually. This year, it will cost $80 billion.
Part of that dramatic rise reflects the impact of the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, followed by this twilight recovery, with its frightening rise in the number of long-term unemployed. The struggle of Rim Country food banks to keep up with the dispiriting demand by desperate families attests to the rise in the need. A family of three making up to 130 percent of the poverty line can qualify (net income of $1,628 monthly).
House Republicans initially demanded a 5 percent annual cut ($4 billion) in the program. They ended up extracting a 1 percent ($800 million) annual cut. Most of that will come from cracking down on states that give people $1-a-month heating subsidies so they can deduct heating bills from their income to qualify for food stamps. The new rules will require a heating bill subsidy of at least $20 to trigger to easier access.
The bill also failed to make any serious reduction in the $20 billion annual cost of farm subsidies — most of which goes to corporations, not family farms. The program started in the depths of the Great Depression when 25 percent of the nation’s population lived on 6 million small farms. Now about 150,000 large farms account for 72 percent of the farm sales and only 2 percent of the population lives on a farm. This relative handful of corporations collects most of the $20 billion and the program’s turned into undead zombie of a budget beast.
The bill accomplished one small reform: It eliminated the absurd policy of paying farmers not to grow certain crops in an effort to keep prices high. That reform is projected to save about $4 billion annually. However, the corporate lobbyists managed to get $3 billion of that back in the form of higher crop insurance subsidies — including a policy that will pay farmers if prices fall.
Meanwhile, people with adjusted incomes of up to $900,000 annually can still qualify for this flagrant corporate welfare. Even wealthy farmers can collect up to $125,000 annually in corporate welfare payments.
By the time you balance it all out, the bill will save about $1.6 billion annually compared to the projected increase without changes. Compare that to the $4 billion in annual reductions even President Obama called for in his 2014 budget and it’s hard to muster much confidence this crowd will ever balance the budget, stabilize Social Security, shore up Medicare, rationalize military spending or tackle any of the other urgent problems that confront us all.
Hard to know what to say about such a steaming heap of sausage — freshly made.
So we’ll fall back once more on quoting Twain: “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.”