BUTTE — Some of the same Montana lawmakers who deride government spending and voted to reject millions of dollars in federal money have received thousands of dollars of federal agricultural subsidies for their farm and ranch operations.
That’s the message of a new report that lambastes state Republican lawmakers who have sharply criticized federal spending levels while accepting U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidies. The recent report by The Policy Institute in Helena titled “Profiles in Hypocrisy” notes that while lawmakers are saying they want nothing to do with federal programs or rules, they’ve benefited for well over a decade from programs paid for by the American taxpayer.
And many of those lawmakers have voted to cut funding for programs that help the poorest Montanans, including food, prescription drug and energy bill assistance, said Molly Severtson, executive director of the left-leaning institute.
“The rhetoric a lot of times is that we should all take care of ourselves and not rely on government,” she said recently. “If you take these subsidies and you benefit in this way, your rhetoric should be different against the federal government and governmental programs.”
None of the Republican lawmakers contacted by The Montana Standard for this story returned several telephone calls seeking comment on the report.
But Jake Cummins, executive vice president of the Montana Farm Bureau, called the report nothing more than a partisan attack aimed at Republicans. He said everyone in the United States benefits from some federal program and farmers and ranchers who produce a safe, cheap food supply are no different.
“These kinds of reports aren’t fair in any way, shape or form,” he said. “I don’t see any disqualification or hypocrisy from benefiting from some federal programs and questioning the efficacy of others.
“Anybody who collects Social Security cannot question whether Social Security needs changes?” asked Cummins.
The institute’s report comes at a time when soaring federal deficits and calls in Congress and state capitals to reduce government spending are shining a spotlight on agricultural subsidies.
The report offered a sharp critique of some lawmakers. But Severtson said it was not meant to be critical of farm programs. In fact, two of the institute’s board members have received agricultural subsidies.
And she said the report was not targeting Republicans, but rather any lawmaker who receives subsidies while calling for cuts in spending on social programs and voting to deny federal dollars to help Montana.
“The point is to show the hypocrisy that exists between the professed ideological viewpoints of some legislators and their personal willingness to benefit from the very types of programs they publicly condemn,” the report said.
The top five recipients accepted more than $600,000 in agricultural subsidies from 1995 to 2009, the report said. That’s more than the $564,000 an average Montana household earned through the same period, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
At the same time, she said this Legislature has been especially harsh at cutting the social safety net. She added that looking on an individual household basis, food and drug, health and other assistance pays out far less to poor families.
“I can’t imagine that they would get in excess of $600,000 over the course of 15 years,” she said.
Agricultural subsidies started in the 1920s to protect farmers from the uncertainties of the industry, including crop failures and fluctuating commodity prices. They grew during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl.
The programs include direct payments to farmers, crop insurance, disaster payments and incentives to conserve wildlife habitat and protect water quality.
But Don Carr, a senior policy adviser with the Environmental Working Group, said through the years the program has become heavily skewed toward the richest farmers. The EWG is a nonprofit policy group based in Washington that tracks farm subsidies and public health issues and has long pushed for changes to agricultural programs.
Carr said while EWG supports subsidies as a safety net for farmers, the current system is grossly out of whack. Only 38 percent of all farmers and ranchers nationwide receive any subsidies and of those who, the top 10 percent in income take in nearly three quarters of all the subsidies.
And in this time of economic hardship, the payments continue despite sky-high grain prices.
“The past decade has seen the five highest years ever for farm income,” he said. “If you received a government subsidy of $30,000 in farm payments, you’re average income was $210,000.”
Farm safety net
But Cummins said while groups can make a spectacle of any federal program, the merits of the farm safety net stand out. And he said the fact that commodity prices are high is offset by the increased costs of production.
First among those is the spike in fuel costs driven by the rise in oil prices.
“When people talk about these prices, they rarely mention that input costs have increased dramatically — particularly fuel,” he said. “They go out and purchase equipment at a staggering price and suddenly the price of oil goes up.
“What happens when (wheat prices) drops below $5 again and these guys are holding the bag because they’ve made decisions for their crop year?”
And Cummins also said the EWG’s numbers don’t paint the whole picture. He said family farms often grow larger by being conservative in good times and adding land to their operations.
“Does that suddenly make you a rich farmer or a farmer who had the smarts to put some money aside rather than buy that new combine?” he said. “You’re the same people; you’re just trying to be economically efficient and successful in your life’s work.”
Agricultural subsidies are coming under fire at a time when tea party activists and other groups are urging sharp cuts in federal spending.
Scott Sales, Montana director of Americans for Prosperity, said with soaring federal deficits it’s time to look at changes to numerous federal programs, including agricultural subsidies. For example, the conservation reserve program has paid people not to farm and in the process driven numerous businesses, such as fertilizer and farm implement dealers, under in eastern Montana.
“We’re spending way too much on corporate welfare as well as individual welfare,” Sales said. “When you start messing with the private sector with these subsidies and these different programs, they have unintended consequences.”
The push for changes has been building in recent years. The Bush administration proposed limiting payments to farmers with the highest incomes. And the Obama administration has called for cuts to agricultural programs as a way to help lower the deficit. But the proposal was shot down by Congress and the 2008 Farm Bill continued to send the bulk of the payments to the largest farms.
Even some interests within the agricultural community are voicing the need for change. Last year the Iowa Farm Bureau, representing the state that is second in total subsidies received, called for an end to direct payments.
Mary Kay Thatcher, a lobbyist with the American Farm Bureau, said her group understands that agriculture will have to take cuts in next year’s Farm Bill. But she said farmers and ranchers shouldn’t shoulder too much of the burden to balance the nation’s books.
“I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t think we’re going to look at direct payments,” she said of the 2012 Farm Bill. “We need to look at what is really necessary in the safety net and what farmers and ranchers could live without.”
Carr said EWG would like to see major changes in the program that would benefit smaller farmers, promote better environmental practices and prevent the richest farmers from raking in large subsidies.
“The message in Congress is everybody is going to have to tighten their belts,” he said. “Taxpayer money should really be given to those who need it, not those who year after year are making record income.”
Cummins disagrees. He said Americans enjoy some of the cheapest food prices in the world even at a time when global food prices are rising. And he said it’s true that subsidies have a hand in that, but farming and ranching is still a risky enterprise.