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Phantom Farm Bill Savings

June 18, 2013 J

By Christine Harbin

The 2013 Farm Bill is quickly moving through both chambers of Congress right now—the Senate is approved it last week, and the House will pick it up this week. As per usual, Farm Bill sponsors are celebrating this year’s iteration as a money saver, even though it’s actually bigger and more bloated than its predecessors.

This doublespeak arises from the problematic way Washington scores the bill: Even though Congress reauthorizes the Farm Bill every 5 years, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores it over 10. This enables Congress to increase spending in years 1-5 and push the savings to years 6-10. These savings will never be realized since Farm Bill programs will expire after year 5 and we’ll be on to the next Farm Bill by then—one that, like its predecessors, increases spending in the early years and pushes the phantom savings to the later years.

Historical 5-Year Cost of the Farm Bill (Inflation-adjusted, dollars in millions)

Consider the 2013 Farm Bill as a prime case in point. Chairman Frank Lucas claims that, over the next 10 years, the House version would reduce direct spending by $33 billion; Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow claims that the Senate version would reduce it by $18 billion. But a closer at the CBO scores reveals that in the current House bill, 60 percent of the savings happen in years 6-10; in the Senate version, 64 percent do.

These statistics overlook the fact that both versions of the 2013 Farm Bill dramatically increase spending in the early years. In 2014, for instance, the House version of the bill would increase total spending by $578 million; the Senate version would increase it by $735 million.

When Washington fails to honestly account for how much the federal government spends on food and farm programs, it gets in the way of much-needed reform. As a result, we spend more and more with each Farm Bill reauthorization. American taxpayers deserve a more complete and honest analysis of what goes into these ever-growing spending bills.

A better and more accurate way to measure Farm Bill spending is to look at the CBO baseline plus new funding outlays over five years. Using this figure, we see that the 2013 Farm Bill spends more than ever. Over five years, inflation-adjusted actual spending on the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bill came in at $257 billion and $427 billion, respectively. Projected spending on the 2013 Farm Bill far exceeds this—over the same period, the Senate version comes in at $494 billion in total spending, and the House version $485 billion. That’s more than twice the size of the 2002 bill.

This year’s Farm Bill reauthorization presents Congress with a natural opportunity to cut federal spending and revisit our broken farm programs. Chairman Lucas, Chairwoman Stabenow, and their colleagues in Congress should seek actual savings in food and farm programs. They should cut spending right now, not shift cuts into the future.

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