Corn and soybean field with ghosted money

DES MOINES — While the money is welcome, the process and the precedent may be less so when it comes to the federal Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments. At the very least, there are some serious questions to be asked, according to Jonathan Coppess, director of the Gardner Ag Policy Program at the University of Illinois.

Coppess spoke via video to members of the Iowa Soybean Association during the group’s annual meeting here Jan. 28.

He said the way the MFP was put in place and operated raises a number of concerns.

“I didn’t want to be kind of a cheap critic,” Coppess told the group, but he said the nearly $20 billion distributed to farmers in the past two years through the MFP came without any Congressional action and almost no transparency.

“This is a really large amount of spending,” Coppess said.

Normally, farm programs are designed in Congress and go through a very public vetting process where farm organizations and many other constituencies are represented. There are open hearings. Because of the public nature of the process and the need to get votes in Congress, coalitions are formed, often between regions of the country or between farmers and consumers or advocates for the poor.

For the past 50 years or so, advocates of farm programs and food programs have worked together to pass farm legislation that benefited both groups. There have also been coalitions between farmers and conservation groups

None of that has happened with the MFP, he said.

Coppess said an argument could be made that the trade war made this a special situation and the USDA could act faster on its own without having to go through Congress. But he said if the USDA can spend this amount of money without any new Congressional approval, what does that mean for future farm legislation? And should the USDA be acting in this fashion?

In this case, he said, the president and the secretary of agriculture designed a program as they saw fit. The payments have been tied to production, which would seem to leave the door open to potential legal challenges from other countries based on trade distortions. What’s more, this program had much higher payment limits, and the payments differed depending on the crop produced.

“I would caution that the coalitions (required to pass a farm bill) are important for stability,” Coppess said.

Add in the fact that while this program is in place, the administration has also made moves to cut SNAP payments, and the coalitions become even more fragile.

“Boy, this is complicated politics,” Coppess said, adding farmers need to be asking basic questions about what direction farm policy should take and whether the government should be spending that amount of money without Congressional authorization, or whether the process should be more transparent.

“This is all food for thought,” he said.

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.