Read It and Pay

On Jan. 5, 2011,, the website for the “House Republican Majority,” trumpeted news that its members had acted on their “promise” to “ensure that bills are debated and discussed in the public square by publishing the text online for at least three days before coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives.”

The reason for the new rule was plain: there will be “no more hiding legislative language from the minority party, opponents, and the public. Legislation,” it lectured, “should be understood by all interested parties before it is voted on.”

Three years in, however, the House rarely has posted any pending legislation 72 hours before a final vote. If anything was “hiding” in any bill before a vote, it mostly remained in hiding afterwards.

Take the Agricultural Act of 2014.

The Farm Bill easily is one of the biggest, most complex, most expensive pieces of legislation Congress has voted on this session. That vote, however, came 48 hours after the 950-page bill’s final language was hashed out.

Does anyone believe that anyone on Capitol Hill, let alone the public, actually read the bill for content, cost and clarity in those 48 hours?

This is important because, for example, no one confirmed the bill’s estimated $23 billion in savings (according to the bill’s writers) over the 2008 law or the lesser, $16 billion in savings calculated by the Congressional Budget Office.

We know both were mostly smoke because, in fact, if today’s 2014/15 crop production estimates are even close to being right, payouts for subsidized crop insurance, the centerpiece of the 2014 law, could easily wipe out those savings in the next two or so years. (Informational links posted here.)

Economists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture said as much when the agency released its farm income estimates in mid-February. Falling grain prices will clip net farm income 27 percent in 2014, USDA calculates, from $130.5 billion last year to $95.8 billion this year.

There are other ripe plums in the Farm Bill that, coincidentally, appeared just after the House and Senate votes. One, while silent on fact, speaks volumes to how Congress views itself and government transparency.

“Just a few days since Congress approved a $956.4 billion farm bill,” explained the Feb. 7 Washington Post, “watchdog groups are complaining that lawmakers didn’t include language that would force the Agriculture Department to disclose whether lawmakers and senior government officials receive any payment from new crop insurance programs.”

Curiously, the House version of the working bill did include disclosure language for members of Congress and Cabinet secretaries. The final version, however, eliminated it because, according to one “House aide familiar with the talks,” noted the Post, “it just wasn’t a priority.”

Other crop insurance ideas sure were, though.

For example, Section 11022, Part 21, Section A of the bill’s Title XI, Crop Insurance section, orders the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. to “contract with a qualified person to conduct a study to determine the feasibility of insuring poultry producers for a catastrophic event.”

Why would Congress order a study of taxpayer-subsidized “catastrophic” insurance to businesses in one of the most packer-dominated, market-integrated sectors in American agriculture? Beats me.

Moreover, why would Congress order another study just four years after taxpayers caught the tab for a similar one in 2010 that concluded the industry’s “lack of transparency” made any insurance product in poultry not “feasible”?

The likely answer isn’t explicitly stated in the 2014 Farm Bill but is quite clear to anyone who reads the law—either now or later: If Congress intends to mandate subsidized crop insurance to, essentially, privatize almost every aspect of what we once called “farm programs,” it can’t hurt knowing the pitfalls and costs of clunkers like chicken insurance.

It’d be even better to know about ‘em before Congress actually voted on ‘em.

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