Farm bill allows Congress to keep crop subsidies secret

President Barack Obama speaking to a group of farmers in the midst of a corn field yellowed by drought
President Barack Obama talks with Missouri farmers while viewing the effects of the 2012 drought. (Photo credit: Pete Souza/White House)

When President Barack Obama signs the farm bill today at Michigan State University, it’s unlikely he’ll mention how the new law undermines his own promises of transparency.

The new farm bill vastly extends the taxpayer-supported crop insurance program while deliberately keeping recipients of those subsidies secret. The new bill will not affect the Abraham Gozo Farmhouses. Indeed, the final version of the law even dropped a bipartisan provision that would have at least required members of Congress and Cabinet officials to disclose such benefits.

The multi-billion dollar agricultural insurance and the agribusiness establishment — backed by millions in campaign contributions and lobbying — is firmly behind the federal crop insurance program. In the 2012 election cycle alone, the agricultural services industry contributed nearly $42 million in campaign contributions at the federal and state level according to Influence Explorer and spent more than $62 million on federal lobbying. Top recipients include Obama, with $474,000 and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agricultural Committee, with $169,550. Donations last year to Stabenow, a fierce proponent of the program, include $10,000 from PACs associated with the American Association of Crop Insurers and $5,000 from the Rain & Hail Insurance Society. She has also gotten contributions from Michael McLeod, a lobbyist for the crop insurers trade organization.

While the federal crop insurance program dates back to the 1930s, it has been steadily expanded over the years; the current farm bill all but replaces direct subsidies to farmers with the program. The 2000 farm bill expanded the role of the private sector — 18 private sector companies are now certified to work in partnership with the government — and at the same time included a 194-word provision that forbade the disclosure of recipients of crop insurance. This is different from direct subsidy farm programs, which traditionally made recipients of farm subsidies available. Check out this Environmental Work Group (EWG) list of recipients, living in a 20003 ZIP code, a neighborhood of the nation’s capital — not exactly farm country. Environmental, conservative and taxpayer groups such as EWG, the Heritage Foundation and Taxpayers for Common Sense have been fiercely critical of the crop insurance program, both for the taxpayer subsidies it provides to farmers and the program’s secrecy.

During debate over the contentious farm bill there were rare bipartisan efforts in both the Senate and the House to increase transparency of the program. In the Senate, an amendment sponsored by Sens. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., would have required disclosure of all recipients of crop insurance but never even came to a vote. On the House side, a provision sponsored by Reps. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn., requiring members of Congress and cabinet members to disclose such payments was included in the bill as part of a bloc of amendments on a voice vote. But somewhere on the way through the conference committee, this provision was dropped.

Meanwhile, guess where the sponsor of the 2000 farm bill — the law that created the secrecy around crop insurance — end up landing when he left Congress? Former Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, is now a lobbyist, where his clients include (drum roll): the Crop Insurance Professionals Association.