Alan Guebert: Twenty-four miles of bad spending, bad policy, bad ideas
One trillion is one thousand billion or one million million.
In money terms, $1 trillion is a stack of $100 bills 631 miles high.
Now consider that the three coronavirus relief bills already approved by Congress will collectively spend about $3 trillion, or a $100-bill stack 1,893 miles high.
But wait, Congress isn’t done. Its leaders are now negotiating how to spend between $1 trillion and $4 trillion on a fourth relief package. That would add another 631 to 2,524 miles of $100 bills to the stack.
With that kind of lunar spending, why should you worry about a relatively puny congressional request to raise the annual spending authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Credit Corporation from $30 billion a year to $68 billion?
Because in both principle and practice, the CCC should not be a political slush fund to cover up farm and trade policy malpractice.
The CCC is, by design, USDA’s checking account for most Farm Bill-authorized programs except crop insurance. Its checks pay for everything from soil conservation programs to flood relief.
Its financial reach, though, is limited; Congress currently restricts CCC spending to $30 billion per fiscal year. According to figures cited by the conservative Heritage Foundation, “The CCC has not come close to breaching that limit from FY 2005 to FY 2019.”
That streak ended under the Trump Administration, however, when it tapped CCC for “$28 billion of so-called trade aid to farmers in 2018 and 2019” to pay for its tariff war with China, notes a July 16 Heritage report.
The tariff fight, when added to an already faltering ag economy, helped undermine farm income. To shore it up, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue devised a clever scheme, called the Market Facilitation Program, to send CCC cash to farmers.
Perdue had the authority because after the GOP takeover of Congress and the White House in 2016, Obama-era limits were lifted on USDA’s “discretionary” use of CCC money. In short, the Trump Administration used the CCC to fill the income gap fueled by own its trade policies while bypassing Congress.
According to a July 14 analysis by Politico, USDA’s “trade bailout has now spanned three years, and surpassed $23 billion, even though it was never appropriated by Congress. Instead the money was funneled through USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation …”
Importantly, no one in the administration asked Congress if it could use the CCC this way and, strikingly, few on the Democratic-led House Ag Committee even asked for an accounting.
It was just a “‘Hey, let’s tap the bank. We’ll buy our way out of this’” problem, Neil Hamilton, the former director and emeritus professor of Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center told Politico.
But now the problem is too big for even the CCC to mop up. No worry, some in Congress have a plan.
On May 5, Rep. Austin Scott, who, coincidentally, is the GOP congressman from Perdue’s home district in Georgia, proposed legislation to “permanently increase the CCC’s annual borrowing limit from $30 billion a year to $68 billion.”
Few in Congress objected to the plan, but former USDA officials and fiscal watchdogs howled.
The increase, argued former USDA chief economist Joseph Glauber and Vincent Smith, the American Enterprise Institute’s director of agriculture, in a July 20 op/ed in The Hill, allows “any administration free rein to spend … with no accountability to Congress …”
Others joined the chorus. The Heritage Foundation, in its detailed July 16 report, noted that current pandemic spending is “so broad” that an expanded CCC “might allow the agriculture secretary to provide money to special interests that have nothing to do with farming …”
Like, maybe, already favored meatpackers?
Glauber told Politico that raising CCC “farm aid” is like “giving USDA a blank piece of paper and saying, ‘Here’s a bunch of money. You decide how to spend it.’”
He’s right; putting $38 billion more into what already looks a lot like a multi-billion dollar political slush fund virtually guarantees more bad policy — especially if you can hide it behind a stack of $100 bills.
Make that a 24-mile-tall stack of $100 bills.