Farm Bill Shields Crop Insurance

Photograph by Mark Elias/Bloomberg

A sugarcane farm in Belle Glade, Florida on Oct. 31, 2013.

Watchdog groups reeling over the easy passage of a farm bill in the House are focusing on a quieter loss they say is significant for government transparency: The defeat of a plan to make lawmakers disclose crop-insurance subsidies.

Absent from the final conference report was a section from the House version of a new five-year farm law requiring members of Congress and Cabinet members, as well as their immediate families, to disclose any subsidies received through participation in the federal crop-insurance program.

What has in recent years become the most expensive farm-subsidy initiative does not have public disclosure requirements for anyone, as the aid is paid out through private companies. Getting lawmakers and officials to disclose the payments would have been a step toward broader disclosure of crop-insurance payments, which reached a record $17 billion in 2012 after the worst drought in the U.S. since the 1950s devastated Corn Belt states, said Craig Cox, director of the Midwest office of conservation activist Environmental Working Group in Ames, Iowa.

“The crop insurance industry has succeeded in keeping their secrets,” Cox said.

Keeping names out of the program encourages participation necessary to its stability, said Michael Torrey, executive vice president of the Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau in Washington.

“Few federal programs release individual information on participants. There is no reason to single out crop insurance and require release of information not required of most other federal programs,” Torrey said in an e-mail today. Payment data, without names, is readily available for public research, he said. Charging the industry with being secretive is a “smear” against “farmers, ranchers and the agriculture industry,” he said.

The House earlier this week voted 251-166 for the so-called farm bill, which would cost $956.4 billion over a decade, sending it to the Senate, where final passage may occur Feb. 4. President Barack Obama intends to sign the law, which took more than two years to approve, as rural Republicans and urban Democrats overcame objections about spending on farm subsidies and food-stamp cuts.

The much-delayed bill to set agricultural policy for five years governs farm subsidies, which encourages planting of soybeans, cotton and other crops by lowering costs for commodity processors including Bunge Ltd. The legislation subsidizes crop-insurance provided by companies such as Ace Ltd. and funds purchases at Kroger Co. and other grocers with food stamps, its biggest cost.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the language didn’t get into the final bill because financial disclosure for lawmakers falls outside the jurisdiction of the agriculture panels, and such aid already falls under the personal financial disclosures top government officials are required to file.

“We already have financial disclosure forms as to where we get our income,” said Stabenow in an interview yesterday for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program, set to air Feb. 2. Stabenow said she was open to wider disclosure should other committees decide to take up the topic. “If there is more to be done over there,” on other committees, she said, “than that will be done over there.”

Although the farm bill will run for the next five years, crop insurance exists under separate legislation, giving opponents opportunities to make changes outside the bill, Cox said. Should costs go higher than projected, that “may well open opportunities for reform, including transparency,” he said.

 

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