Down on the farm: Congress must find the right mix in agricultural cuts

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Both chambers of Congress appear ready to deceptively expand agricultural subsidies and cut important areas of funding in this year's farm bill.

After an unsuccessful effort to pass a new farm bill in Congress last year, the Senate passed a long-anticipated five-year bill last Monday that details agricultural spending for the next 10 years.

To be sure, the bill features a number of provisions that are likely to benefit agriculture locally. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., expressed his support for the bill for its boosts to local and organic farming promotion programs, as well as support for dairy farmers and specialty crops such as pumpkins, apples and mushrooms, all important to Pennsylvania's economy.

The broader provisions of the Senate bill, however, are disappointing. While the bill commendably does away with gratuitous direct payment subsidies that go to farmers whether or not they plant their crops, it seeks to cut additional spending in precisely the wrong places. The legislation aims a blow at America's most vulnerable: The bill would cut about $4 billion from the federal food stamp program, as well as more than $3 billion from federal conservation programs.

But the House farm bill is terrifying by comparison. Expected to be debated on the House floor this month, the House bill would cut $20 billion from food stamps. All told, the Senate's proposed $4 billion cut may not wholly devastate the food stamp program, which costs about $80 billion annually, but the House bill would irresponsibly slash a hefty portion of the aid that millions of Americans, including nearly 2 million Pennsylvanians, depend on.

Food stamps aside, the Senate and House largely agree. Both chambers' bills would cut direct payments to farmers, a subsidy program rightly criticized for benefiting wealthy farmers and industrial agriculture, by about $5 billion, but if the legislation passes in its current state, these payments will be more than replaced by an expansion of crop insurance subsidies.

Like direct payments, insurance subsidies will benefit most those who need them the least: About three-quarters of insurance subsidies are paid to the top 20 percent wealthiest farmers. Unsurprisingly, senators who voted for the farm bill received on average more than twice as much money from the crop insurance industry and benefiting agricultural industries than those who voted against it.

Congress still has the opportunity to cut federal spending in this year's farm bill by scaling back on wanton agricultural subsidies while still funding programs that support poor Americans and conservation programs.

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