Mike Lee: The farm bill vs. America

By Mike Lee

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 5 2014 12:00 p.m. MST

Senate Agriculture Committee member Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., second from right, joined by fellow committee members, gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, after Congress gave its final approval to a sweeping five-year farm bill that provides food for the needy and subsidies for farmers. From left are, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and committee chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

The farm bill Congress just passed Tuesday is a monument to Washington dysfunction, and an insult to taxpayers, consumers and citizens.

Defenders of this bill say it is a “compromise.” But this is only half true. This thousand-page, trillion-dollar mess is less a compromise between House Republicans and Senate Democrats than it is collusion between both parties against the American people, to benefit the special interests at the expense of the national interest.

This was the year the farm bill was supposed to be different. This was supposed to be the year when we would finally split the bill into its logical, component pieces, and reform them one at a time.

This was the year we might have strengthened the Food Stamps program with work requirements. This was the year we might have made sure wealthy Americans were no longer eligible for food stamps.

But those reforms aren’t in the bill we passed.

In fact, many of the few improvements the House and Senate initially tried to include were removed during the secret conference committee process. It is a lost opportunity all around.

The farm bill continues a troubling trend in Washington: using raw political power to twist public policy against the American people, to profit political and corporate insiders.

For instance, under this legislation, the federal government will continue to force taxpayers to subsidize sugar companies, both through the tax code and at the grocery store.

This bill maintains the so-called “dairy cliff,” which creates an artificial crisis each time Congress considers a farm bill, a crisis used to avoid genuine oversight and extract campaign contributions for incumbent politicians.

Under this farm bill, small, independent Christmas tree farmers will now be required to pay a special tax to a government-created organization controlled by larger, corporate producers. These costs will of course be passed on to working families, and so every December, Washington will in effect rob the Cratchits to pay Mr. Scrooge and his lobbyists.

Then there is the farm bill’s most offensive feature: its bullying, disenfranchising shakedown of the American West.

Here’s how it works.

More than 50 percent of all the land west of the Mississippi River is controlled by a federal bureaucracy and cannot be developed. No homes. No businesses. No communities or community centers. No farms or farmers markets. No hospitals or colleges or schools. No little league fields or playgrounds. Nothing.

In Utah, it’s 63 percent of the land. In Daggett County, it’s 81 percent. In Wayne, it’s 85 percent. In Garfield, it’s 90 percent — 90 percent of their land isn’t theirs.

To compensate, local governments for the tax revenue Washington unfairly denies them, Congress created the PILT program, which stands for Payment In Lieu of Taxes. Under PILT, Congress sends a few cents on the dollar out West every year to make up for lost property taxes these communities might otherwise collect.

Local governments across the western United States completely depend on Congress making good on this promise.

Knowing the importance this funding has for western states, this year Congress inserted PILT funding into the farm bill in order to extort political concessions from their congressmen and senators, like in some two-bit protection racket.

“That’s a nice fire department you got there,” Congress says to western communities. “Nice school your kids have. Be a shame if anything should happen to it.”

States like Utah are looking for nothing more than certainty and equality under the law. Yet Congress treats these not as rights to be protected, but vulnerabilities to be exploited.

Thus, support for the farm bill is a vote to keep Utahns and the citizens of most western states permanently dependent on the whims of faraway politicians.

I cannot be a part of it. And I have encouraged my colleagues to recognize that there is another way, a better way, a new approach that remembers what, and who, we’re supposed to really stand for.

Congress could do the right thing and return the land to the states, or it could compromise and fully compensate western communities for the growth and opportunity Washington denies them.

But the farm bill Congress just passed does neither. And we’re all going to pay for it.

This should be an opportunity to bring our people together, not turn our regions against each other, and turn the right to local government into a political football.

It’s time to have a serious debate about a permanent solution to federally owned lands that can improve economic opportunity and mobility while reducing the deficit. And despite all the evidence in this farm bill to the contrary, I believe we are still capable of finding that solution.

Mike Lee is a U.S. Senator from Utah and a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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