The Popcorn Follies

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Popcorn is not a trivial matter. I am reminded of that at the movies where buttered buckets of the stuff are consumed and the surplus spread on the floor under my seat.

But I did not realize the popcorn problem is so severe that a deficit-bedeviled federal government must shoulder yet another burden to protect its citizens. On April 4th, when President Clinton signed the "Freedom to Farm Act," it became the legal responsibility of our national government "to ensure the benefits of popcorn are available to the people of the United States" by "strengthen[ing] the position of the popcorn industry in the marketplace." Awesome.

And all this in a bill heralded as a revolutionary step towards the deregulation of agriculture, the ending of farm subsidies, and "the most sweeping change in agricultural policy in the last 60 years."

A more appropriate title for this bill might be "The Slightly More Flexible Reform Act." Its reforms are more illusory than real, and less permanent than might be expected. And popcorn is the least of its follies.

What changes under the new farm law? Most notably, for the first time there will be a cap on farm spending. The law replaces traditional subsidy payments with a fixed but declining level of transition payments to farmers ($36 billion over seven years). It also ends federal authority to hold farm land out of production. However, at the end of seven years, unless Congress acts, the old farm policies (subsidy payments and land set-asides) automatically come back into effect.

What of the so-called "freedom" under the reform bill? The act was promoted as allowing farmers the freedom to plant whatever crop was most likely to produce the highest profit. This would seem to mean that, if world market prices for wheat were low but prices for tomatoes were high, then wheat farmers might switch to producing tomatoes. Not so. A farmer now growing subsidized crops can only switch to another subsidized crop; essentially other grains, cotton or rice.

What doesn't change under the new farm bill? A lot. American consumers will continue to pay higher prices than the rest of the world's citizens for sugar, peanuts, and most dairy products, because these crops will continue to get subsidies amounting to more then $2 billion a year. Soybean subsidies will actually increase. Americans will also continue to foot the bill for the Market Promotion Program, which helps promote U.S. agricultural products overseas; including, henceforth, popcorn. Landowners don't get those regulatory exemptions promised for temporary wetlands under one acre in size. Farmers and ranchers will continue to have to bear the entire financial burden of the general public's desire for no net loss of mud puddles.

The farm bill is also surprising because of the new bureaucracies that it creates. There's a new "National Natural Resources Conservation Foundation" to promote the conservation of natural resources on private lands, in part through education grants to nonprofit organizations. The nation's top 10 environmental organizations already receive more than $500 million a year in grants and donations, so they are more than capable of promoting their viewpoint without any help from taxpayers.

Also, a new food safety panel is created, adding one more layer of bureaucracy to the Department of Agriculture. Both consumer groups and members of the meat and poultry industries have criticized this program. Following tried and true Washington logic, if neither industry nor consumers like a program, it must be good.

These new programs might surprise people who thought the Republican promises to "get government off the backs of people" and presidential statements that the "era of big government is over" would mean a reduction in the number of federal programs and bureaucracies, not the creation of new ones.

The most perverse part of the new farm bill calls for spending $300 million to acquire about 100,000 acres of the Florida Everglades. Protecting the Everglades may be in the public interest, but the simplest way of conserving the Everglades would be to end the sugar subsidy that allows inefficient sugar producers to continue to operate in the fragile Everglades ecosystem. Then we could save the money and the Everglades. But sugar subsidies do not seem to be a part of the era of big government that President Clinton assures us is over.

Like the monsters in Hollywood movies, big government just keeps coming back. So on Saturday night, enjoy "Braveheart's" anguished cry for freedom, knowing that Washington now has its hand in your bag of popcorn.

Or if that strikes you as sensible, turn to Section 551 of the Freedom to Farm Act. It creates the "National Kiwifruit Research, Promotion, and Consumer Information Act."