The federal government certainly has no issue spending taxpayer money these days. The budget deficit for 2020 surpassed $3 trillion, a level far beyond any the nation has seen. For perspective, this is the largest deficit relative to the size of our economy since World War II and the largest raw number deficit in our nation’s history. The next administration is going to inherit an increasingly urgent spending problem that has plagued the United States for decades.
Despite these alarming numbers, President-elect Joe Biden seems intent to nominate for his cabinet some of the same officials who helped get us into this mess. Perhaps none are more emblematic of this trend than the prospective new Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. Vilsack previously served as head of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) through the entirety of the Obama administration. This will be his second go-round at USDA and – if it is anything like his first – our economy and taxpayers are in deep trouble.
Farm spending in the United States puts a hefty burden on our debt all on its own. For example, the 2018 Farm Bill carried a 10-year price tag of roughly $867 billion. The 2013 Farm Bill, over which Vilsack presided, had a 10-year cost of $955 billion. Vilsack and other proponents cynically claimed it would actually cut spending in the long run. However, the spending cuts were back-loaded to the end of the 10-year span, so they would predictably be superseded by subsequent legislation and never actually take effect. This is the type of underhanded political operator set to re-take the reins at USDA.
Not only does Vilsack demand exorbitant spending, but the policies behind those dollars are harmful to farmers, and to the economy at large. For example, Vilsack is a major proponent of commodity subsidies. These subsidies prop up crops if prices or revenue fall below a certain [largely arbitrary] benchmark. This is a brazen effort to institute government central planning of the economy. It is also remarkably inefficient. It incentivizes the production of excess crops, driving supply up and prices down, necessitating further subsidies and on and on the cycle goes. As a result, The Wall Street Journal reports farm income dropped 40 percent in the four years after Vilsack’s farm bill.
Despite all this, Vilsack and his allies position him as a champion of small farmers and opponents of his legacy as heartless corporatists. However, as is often the case in Washington, the opposite is true. In fact, 94 percent of subsidies go to only six crops: corn, wheat, soy, cotton, rice and peanuts. However, these six crops only account for 28 percent of production. Roughly seven in 10 commodities farmers operate just fine without assistance. Vilsack’s subsidies serve not to aid struggling small farms, but to prop up wealthy special interests. In fact, the top one percent of farms, in terms of gross annual income, receives 20 percent of the subsidies in farm bills like Vilsack’s.
Naturally, lobbyists for varied food interests across the nation are already lining up to praise Biden’s designation of Vilsack to return as USDA Secretary. Surely, the 850 millionaire “farmers” in Manhattan, who received millions in farm subsidies from Vilsack’s USDA and are still receiving them today, are thrilled to see Vilsack’s return. The federal bureaucracy has been a hotbed of cronyism for years precisely because of the type of leadership ushered in by people like Tom Vilsack. This is the proverbial “swamp” that 2016 voters wanted drained.
If Vilsack is successfully confirmed for another stint at USDA, he will have a shot to become the longest-serving Agriculture Secretary in the nation’s history. In the interim, he has been the head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. This government-created entity takes money from dairy farmers and uses it to promote big dairy. This is crony corporatism at its finest. Given this record, it is unthinkable that anyone could believe Vilsack may be the one to change the broken status quo at USDA.
Tom Vilsack is not an unknown quantity. He has a years-long service record of reckless agricultural policy and cronyism that comes at the expense of America’s small family farms and ranches. The senators who will be tasked with evaluating his nomination in the coming weeks would do well to study this record and ask tough questions. Ultimately, any honest evaluation will produce the conclusion that the USDA should not open its doors to Vilsack a second time.