Senate Stifles Amendment on Crop Insurance Disclosure

June 27, 2012

Efforts to win disclosure of the recipients of federal crop insurance subsidies — emerging as the biggest form of federal aid to farmers — failed in the Senate before it passed a roughly trillion-dollar Farm Bill June 21, 2012.

That left journalists and the taxpayers — for now — at least partly in the dark about where tax dollars subsidizing agriculture are really going. But disclosure advocates think they may get another bite of the apple (figuratively) when the House takes up its own version of the Farm Bill.

The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) supported an amendment filed by Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) and cosponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that would have required public disclosure of the identities of recipients of crop insurance subsidies. The amendment was never offered on the floor — after Senate leaders reached a deal on which of nearly 250 filed amendments would be offered.

SEJ takes positions on freedom-of-information issues affecting environmental journalists through its Freedom of Information Task Force, under a long-standing mandate from the SEJ board of directors. The text of SEJ's letter to the sponsors of the subsidy-disclosure amendment can be read here.

A database of federal farm subsidies — maintained by the Environmental Working Group — has often contradicted the political rhetoric about saving small family farms which is so often used to justify subsidies. Instead, the database shows a broad-brush picture of subsidies flowing to large corporations, recipients in cities, and big-commodity operations.

Agricultural subsidies take many forms — and many of the subsidies are publicly disclosed (hence the EWG database). But a law enacted in the year 2000 (the Agricultural Risk Protection Act) specifically exempted crop insurance subsidies from disclosure.

The Begich-McCain amendment would have overturned that law and required disclosure of the identities of crop insurance subsidies, along with related information such as the amount of subsidy payments to each recipient.

As many of the other forms of agricultural subsidies are being cut back in this era of fiscal austerity, federal subsidies for crop insurance offered by private companies is emerging as the most important. In fiscal 2011, the federal government spent some $9 billion on crop insurance subsidies — compared to some $5 billion on all other forms of agricultural subsidies. The insurance subsidy spending program has quadrupled in size since 2002, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that it will cost $90 billion over the coming decade.

EWG has obtained more than a million crop insurance records — minus the identities of recipients — under a Freedom of Information Act request.

The House of Representatives — still dominated by GOP/Tea Party budget hawks — faces a huge political dilemma as it tries to bring its own version of the Farm Bill to the floor. Many House members would like to avoid voting for a trillion-dollar spending bill before the November election. Since many key ag programs expire at the end of September, a one-year extension of existing law may prove too seductive a temptation. But the same political pressures for austerity may mean the House has a better chance of passing subsidy-disclosure language, either as part of the Farm Bill or as a free-standing measure.