Arkansas embroiled in farm aid controversy

Wall Street Journal Editorial:

Excerpts from the Wall Street Journal Editorial on Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln farm aid problems…

Last year heavy rain damaged cotton and rice crops across the South. The 2008 farm bill, passed by a Democratic Congress, created the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program (SURE) to aid farmers hit by such weather-related disasters. The admirable intent was to stop farm-state Senators from looting the Treasury after every early frost or the like. To qualify for SURE funds, farmers are now required to buy crop insurance (federally subsidized to the tune of about $6 billion a year) and to have lost more than 30% of their crop value.

Mrs. Lincoln wants to pull an end run around this law and make Arkansas farmers eligible for retroactive taxpayer payments. The payments would be made even if the recipients didn’t buy crop insurance and even if their damages were as little as 5%. Most small businesses in America suffered far more than a 5% fall in revenues during the recession, but few are getting six-figure handouts from Uncle Sam. Rice and cotton prices have recovered nicely this year in any event.

Mrs. Lincoln’s claim is preposterous enough that she can’t persuade even her fellow Democrats to pony up the cash. First she suggested tapping TARP for the money. When that didn’t fly, she tried unsuccessfully to add an earmark to a war funding bill, and then to the small business bill that Congress will take up after Labor Day. Her colleagues keep saying “no.”

Enter the White House. In an August 6 letter, deputy budget director Robert L. Nabors II pledged that “the Administration is committed to providing [the disaster] assistance consistent with your legislative proposal by the end of the month.” The White House says it can do so under a Depression-era law allowing tariff funds to be used for farm emergency payments. Past Administrations have done so, including the Bush Administration, but seldom at such a scale or to usurp so blatantly Congress’s power of the purse.

Much of the money will go to some of the largest farms or plantations. According to an analysis by the liberal-leaning Environmental Working Group, Ratio Farms in Helena, Arkansas is in line to get $787,000, and that is on top of the $874,000 the agribusiness giant received in farm payments in 2009. Nearly 200 Arkansas farms and 100 Louisiana farms will get a check for $100,000 or more, and the 10% richest farmers will get almost two-thirds of the money. One of the few federal programs the Obama administration has said it wants to eliminate is farm subsidies to wealthy farmers — unless, apparently, the money goes to the state of an endangered Democratic Senator.

Coincidentally—or not—the USDA has chosen this moment to stop publishing the names of farm subsidy recipients and how much they receive. As EWG puts it: “This policy effectively shields from disclosure subsidy benefits going to multiple, and often absentee, owners of large, agribusiness farming operations.” The USDA says shutting down the data base will save money. Welcome to the new era of transparency in government…

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