WASHINGTON – Washington is subsidizing Fortune 500 companies and the farming operations of celebrities like Scottie Pippen and Ted Turner through the 2002 farm bill, complain critics, who say the bill is a corporate welfare program that subsidizes agribusiness to the detriment of family farms.
According to the Environmental Working Group (search), nearly two-thirds of farm subsidies went to just 10 percent of recipients in 2002.
"Farm subsidies are designed to subsidize large agribusinesses. This is not by accident because large agribusinesses often fund many of the large lobbyists on Capitol Hill," said Brian Riedl, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation (search).
The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act (search) marked its second anniversary last month, prompting lawmakers to review the performance of the legislation. The bill was intended to address a stable food supply for the nation and the maintenance of a safety net for producers when commodity prices drop.
Commodity prices have been strong, reducing the expected cost of the bill, but this year's price tag of about $20 billion has still raised concerns. Lawmakers, budget watchdogs and even some farm groups say it could be restructured to save money and help small farmers.
"We need a farm bill for food security just like we need an energy bill for energy security," said Sen. Charles Grassley (search), R-Iowa, who received $162,117 from 1995 to 2002 to support his 710 acres of corn and soybeans.
But even while defending his subsidies, saying he is a lifelong farmer, Grassley, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, agrees that spending should be limited and more of the benefits should be going to small farmers.
"Things need to be reformed to have a program that does assist the small- and medium-sized producers," Grassley said in a statement to Foxnews.com. "It is important to have a farm bill to support the small- and medium-sized farmer to protect them from market forces they don’t have control of."
Grassley has worked to cap payments at $300,000 per farm. His office calculated that this limit would save $1.2 billion a year, and said the legislation is ready to go if the senator can find a vehicle to attach it to.
But some farm groups and lawmakers say that the distribution of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to individual farms may not be excessive. While the prices are high, they say that farming is expensive and government aid is necessary if America is to continue to feed itself. Supporters of the funding say to do otherwise would create a national security risk.
Eleven percent of America's food is imported, but without legislation like the farm bill, that number would be much higher, said Tom Buys, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union (search). If the United States were to fall out of favor with a country that it was importing food from, "the consequences are far greater than our reliance on imported oil," he said.
"The bill itself is very focused on providing a source of food and fiber that is safe and plentiful," said Rep. Doug Ose, R-Calif. "A safe, affordable and plentiful supply of food is a national security issue."
Ose, too, is a recipient of farm bill subsidies. His family's farm received over $600,000 in subsidies between 1995 and 2002. But the lawmaker, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said he has not been involved in the family's rice farm since 1988.
"For the entire term of my career here in Congress I have purposely stayed out of the family business," Ose told Foxnews.com.
In all, nine lawmakers, five with committee assignments directly impacting farm policy, receive a subsidy as a result of the farm bill.
"There are conflict of interest concerns anytime members of Congress are writing legislation that personally benefits them to the extent that farm subsidies do," said Riedl.
In 2002, 78 farms received over $1 million each in federal subsidies. Arkansas-based Riceland Foods, a co-operative of 9,000 farmers who mostly produced rice, soybeans and wheat, received $110 million. Since 1991, subsidies for large farms have tripled while subsidies for small farms have not increased. Among these large farms are 12 operations run by Fortune 500 companies.
Some farm groups bristle at the idea of making a distinction between agribusinesses and family farms.
"It's not corporate welfare. Better than 95 percent of family farms are family-owned or family corporations," said Bob Young, chief economist at the American Farm Bureau (search), which receives much of its funding from large farm operations. In these operations, "the family provides a vast majority of the management and labor."
Young said farm subsidies are needed because other major markets like the European Union and India have export subsidies, and the U.S. government needs to help American farmers stay competitive. He added that a key component of the farm bill is money for land conservation that helps protect wildlife, and argued that having Washington play a managing role in the nation's food supply insures "a bushel too much rather than a bushel too few."
Accusations of being on the government dole sting farmers, said Pat Buschetti, director of government relations for the National Association of Wheat Growers (search).
"I don't know of a farmer who would not much rather say, 'I don’t want to deal with the Farm Service Agency (search). I don’t want to get government payments. I'm tired of being accused of getting corporate welfare.'"
But, Buschetti said, farmers need legislation like the farm bill to continue receiving a fair wage for the products they are growing.
Reformers have suggested a variety of ways of reducing the government's role in subsidizing farms. Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., has proposed shifting to crop insurance rather than straight payments to farmers. In this way, farmers would be protected from the uncertainties of weather, insect attacks and other potential hazards.
Riedl has his own prescriptions for reform, including completing the phase-out of farm subsidies that was scheduled to begin following the 1996 "Freedom to Farm" law. That plan — abandoned in the 2002 bill — would have replaced farm subsidies with a subsidized crop insurance program and pressured other nations to open their markets.