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Acknowledging the game is rigged

by MICHAEL A. NEEDHAM Special to the Democrat-Gazette | May 8, 2016 at 1:48 a.m.

There is no secret behind the political waves exploited by Donald Trump and to some extent Bernie Sanders: Americans believe Washington is a corrupt cesspool that exists solely to cater to well-connected special interests. The people are not wrong, and their anger toward the Washington establishment is well deserved.

Rarely, though, has a member of the establishment been so candid as Mary Kay Thatcher. She is the senior director for congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, a nearly century-old institution that spends tens of millions per year to maintain America's Depression-era farm programs.

In a recent speech lamenting the growing opposition to economically irrational farm subsidies, Ms. Thatcher offered some key pieces of advice to resist the growing tide of skepticism toward these taxpayer-funded boondoggles.

According to reports of the speech, she suggested that "Crop insurance lobbyists might consider attending fundraisers for some of these 'middle of the road' candidates." This comes as no surprise, especially considering that various agribusiness entities--including the Farm Bureau--spent more than $130 million last year lobbying Congress.

Her next bit of advice stands out not because it is particularly insightful but because of her blunt acknowledgement of how special interests rely on one another to survive and thrive:

"[Thatcher] noted that conservation groups helped 'sustain' crop insurance in the December fight, and that she thinks it is vital for the crop insurance industry to maintain its alliance with these groups while doing more to shore up its relationship with nutrition groups that want to keep food stamps in the farm bill."

What Ms. Thatcher and by extension the American Farm Bureau is saying is that the only way to beat back reform efforts on unpopular and inefficient federal programs that cost nearly $100 billion a year is to join forces with other unpopular and inefficient federal programs.

To her immense credit, Ms. Thatcher didn't even hide the reason for her plea:

"Heritage Action ... continues to want to split farm programs from the nutrition programs in the belief that the split would make it easier to cut both programs, she said."

There is absolutely no doubt that when subject to increased scrutiny the programs that fall under the broad umbrella of the "farm bill" would experience significant and much needed reforms.

Spending on the food stamp program, for example, doubled under George W. Bush and doubled again under Barack Obama. Eligibility expansions and benefit increases drove the explosion in costs and participation, but the program is also rife with fraud and abuse.

The conservation programs Ms. Thatcher alluded to may attract support from certain segments of the environmental lobby, but according to the Heritage Foundation the result is "over-planting on marginal lands that require more chemical management."

For Ms. Thatcher, attracting those disparate interest groups is all part of the price of preserving the status quo when it comes to farm subsidies. Incredibly, if there is one issue that economists on the right and the left can agree on, it is that America's system of subsidizing agriculture is horrendously outdated and inefficient.

Lawmakers are unlikely to take action on the food stamp and farm bill until 2018, but as Ms. Thatcher's speech suggests, Big Agriculture is already making the rounds to ensure the status quo will prevail. And as chairman of the General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee in the U.S. House, Arkansas congressman Rick Crawford will be lobbied from all sides.

It is no wonder so many Americans believe the game is rigged against them. To restore trust and secure good policy, the days of rolling a handful of special interest spending boondoggles into a single bill must end. If it doesn't, the American people will continue their political revolution, and there is no telling how that revolution will play out for our children and grandchildren.

Michael A. Needham is the chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

Editorial on 05/08/2016

Print Headline: Acknowledging the game is rigged


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