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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Congress has left me confused. Stunned, actually, as well as bewildered, chagrined and slightly depressed. The GOP-dominated House has passed a bill that defies compassion, mathematics and common sense.

OK, so there’s nothing unusual about that. Point taken.

But the recent passage of a farm bill, after months of delay, is an especially sharp example of congressional priorities — protect the rich and punish the poor, comfort the comfortable while brutalizing the afflicted. The bill will cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), usually known as food stamps, while preserving subsidies for farmers, most of whom could get by quite nicely without help.

By contrast, many Americans are struggling with a globalized, roboticized economy that has devalued the average worker. The new economy has forced down wages, eliminated job security and abandoned traditional perks such as pensions. It is quite possible to work 40 or 50 hours a week and still need help to put food on the table, as the managers of food pantries around the country will attest.

Yet, congressional observers are predicting that the farm bill will pass the Senate and get President Obama’s signature. While most Democrats don’t like the cuts, the current bill, they figure, is the best they can do. It takes about 1 percent from SNAP — around $800 million a year in the $80 billion-a-year program — but that’s less than conservatives had initially sought.

Still, if Republicans really care about deficits, if they really want to rein in government, if they believe people ought to stand on their own two feet and refuse the “welfare state,” why are they preserving welfare for those who need it least? Do they not see the glaring hypocrisy in their insistence on farm subsidies?

The bill does end the least politically defensible part of farm welfare: direct payments, paid to farmers whether they plant or not. But it continues a host of other unnecessary programs that cost billions — including crop subsidies and crop insurance. Indeed, the bill increases some crop subsidies, such as those to Southern peanut farmers. And the remaining programs are just as bad as the direct payments.

Take crop insurance, which has its roots in the Dust Bowl era. Though conditions have changed substantially since then — the small family farmer has virtually disappeared — crop insurance has mushroomed. In 2012, according to The Insurance Journal, taxpayers spent $14 billion insuring farmers against a loss of income. Is there any other business in America that gets that sort of benefit? Aren’t farmers supposed to be entrepreneurs willing to take risks?