Let’s help our budget crises by continuing billion-dollar handouts to huge, profitable agribusinesses.

Apparently, that’s what Congress thinks. 

Congress just passed a Farm Bill that will put taxpayers on the hook for another five years of billion-dollar handouts to huge, wealthy agribusinesses. Even the most modest reforms to trim subsidies were stripped out or watered down at the last second by the chairs of the House and Senate Agricultural Committees.

For all the talk about the need to cut wasteful spending, Congress takes painfully little action. This is a case in point of what I told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform just last month: wasteful programs often get perpetuated because of special interests’ backroom influence.

I testified in the hearing, “Waste in Government: What’s Being Done?” and took part in a panel of experts from organizations spanning the political spectrum, including the National Taxpayers Union, Citizens Against Government Waste, and the Cato Institute. While we don’t agree on much, we could all agree that we spend too many taxpayer dollars on wasteful programs. 

Although members showed support for the targeted eliminations that the panel offered, they questioned how to cut unnecessary programs. We provided them with research and expertise on what to cut. How do they do it? Isn’t that what they were elected to figure out? The members of the committee expressed dismay at the sheer amount of waste that plagues our federal budget, but this anger is not enough. Backbone is also required. Congress needs to stand up against powerful special interests and end wasteful program extensions. 

Chairman Darrell Issa pledged to put a piece of legislation up for a vote on eliminating waste if Senators Carper and Coburn first held a vote in the Senate Oversight Committee. This is a hopeful start, yet it still perpetuates the “we’ll do it if you do it first” mentality, thus shifting responsibility and accountability elsewhere.

The omnibus appropriations bill passed by Congress last month made a few small steps in the right direction. It avoided another damaging shutdown and rejected the arbitrary sequester approach to budgeting, which equates public priorities with genuine waste. 

And it included a few recommendations from a report we authored with the National Taxpayers Union – Toward Common Ground. The bill reduces funding for the Economic Development Administration, an agency that has been fraught with inefficiencies for years, and it allocates less funding to wasteful defense programs, such as the Ground Combat Vehicle and the Navy Cruiser Modernization Program. Unfortunately, the bill leaves billions worth of wasteful programs intact and continues to fund special interests at the expense of the public.

Despite our policy differences, U.S. PIRG and NTU were able to come up with 65 specific deficit reduction recommendations worth more than half a trillion dollars.

A few of the proposals in our report include: 

-       Eliminating the Crop Insurance Program: Large and profitable agribusinesses receive billions of dollars in subsidies from the federal government. With 75% of subsidies going to only 4% of farmers, the small farmer we all know and love often doesn’t get a dime.

-       Eliminating the Market Access Program: The federal government funds trade associations of private companies to advertise abroad.

-       Eliminating Catfish Inspection by the Food Safety and Inspection Service: This program duplicates work already being done by the FDA and the National Marine Fisheries Service. 

Congress cut food safety inspectors in the omnibus but didn’t touch this stuff?

Congresswoman Lujan Grisham humbly asked the panel what grade each would give their elected leaders on eradicating waste and inefficient federal programs. Unsurprisingly, all witnesses said Congress was doing quite poorly; no one gave Congress higher than an F grade. 

It’s time to stop pointing fingers and simply talking about our federal budget problems and how difficult they are. It’s time for our elected leaders to do what they’re supposed to, and rejecting the current Farm Bill proposal would have been a great start. With so much low-hanging fruit for the picking, I sincerely hope that the next time the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform convenes, we can say they did better.