Bush and Walker's Iowa Teams Harvest Millions in Farm Subsidies

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush announced his "Iowa Farm Team," on Wednesday, July 30th in the Iowa Quad City Times:


The campaign said the former Florida governor's "Iowa Farm Team" would be charged with telling the story of his "commitment to supporting production agriculture" and Iowa's role in it.

"I respect the good conservative, fiscal and moral values that characterized Jeb Bush's leadership in Florida," said Cal Rozenboom of Oskaloosa, a member of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation's board of directors, who also endorsed him.

On Friday, August 6th, another GOP presidential contender, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, announced his Iowa "Leadership Team." The team has 65 members including business and political leaders across the state. In Walker's words "their support reflects the enthusiasm Iowans have for our big, bold conservative ideas to reform Washington."

It's hard -- dang near impossible -- to be part of Iowa's production agriculture system without having relied on taxpayer-funded farm subsidy programs authorized in the federal farm bill. A point easily made by feeding the names from Bush and Walker's Iowa teams into the Environmental Working Group's farm subsidy database.

Bush and Walker's Iowa teams have a combined farm subsidy take of $13.5 million (Bush's team $9.2 million, Walker's team $4.3 million).

EWG pulls in raw data from the US Department of Agriculture. All payments are from 1995-2012 and paid directly or to farms team members have ownership stakes in. The largest subsidy recipient on Jeb Bush's team pulled in $1, 367, 891. Scott Walker's team's top recipient received $868, 386.

So why do these two farm team's millions in federal subsidies matter?

The first and most obvious answer is that by cozying up with subsidized farmers it puts them at odds with a long list of conservative, limited government, and taxpayer rights groups and publications that includes Heritage, Cato, Taxpayers for Common Sense, National Review, American Enterprise Institute. These entities either seek to reform or outright oppose farm subsidies. That's no small thing in a GOP primary where the deluge of candidates are struggling to out-conservative one another to appeal to far-right primary voters.

The subsidies tracked in the EWG database have morphed over the past few years into a highly subsidized crop insurance program authorized in the last farm bill. But crop insurance is not really insurance. As explained by Iowa State University agriculture economist Bruce Babcock:

You have to remember that federal crop insurance is not an insurance program; it is a welfare program for farmers. It is a way of delivering money to farmers. It is not insurance.

The incorrect sentiment that crop insurance is not somehow just another government giveaway is already bleeding into presidential politics. It gives candidates convenient breathing room to appear conservative by opposing the old forms of subsidies while embracing "insurance" and not alienating the farm lobby and Iowa primary voters.

Candidates that have already endorsed the crop insurance program include Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie -- and not surprisingly considering their Iowa supporter's penchant for government cash -- Bush and Walker also voiced support for crop insurance subsidies.

Worse, and what should give big government critics pause, is that crop insurance subsidies are totally secret. We -- the taxpayers that fund them -- are barred by law to know who gets them or how much. That's why the data trail goes cold at 2012 for the two candidates' farm teams. Members of Congress were so spooked about their own crop insurance subsidies getting exposed, they beat back specific attempts to track them.

In the rare case that crop insurance subsidy data has leaked out, we learned that 26 mega farms each received a million dollar subsidy in 2011. And when the Government Accountability Office looked at the program they found some eye-popping statistics about large and wealthy recipients, including that some weren't even farmers:

For example, more than 70 of the crop insurance participants we identified as among the highest income during 1 or more years from 2009 through 2013 were managers or professionals, including attorneys, executives, or physicians. Four others, who had net worth over $1.5 billion each in 2013, earned their wealth from a variety of sources in addition to farming, such as mining, real estate, sports, and information technology, according to publicly available information. Those participants each insured an average of about 18,200 acres, had approximately $118,400 in premium subsidies provided on their behalf, and collected about $38,300 in claims payments during the 5-year period.

The old subsidy regime in the EWG database was grossly inequitable. It funneled billions to mega farms and wealthy landowners over small, struggling farms. Bush's brother and former president George W. Bush vetoed the farm bill in part because it did little to reform those subsidies. Crop insurance largely benefits the same handful of America's largest farms -- though it does also benefit smaller farmers and a more diverse pool.

It's also notable that Scott Walker is on a misguided mission to drug test food stamp recipients. Considering what we now know about his subsidy-heavy Iowa team, what the Washington Post's Emily Badger wrote about beneficiary contradictions is especially pertinent.

We rarely make similar demands of other recipients of government aid. We don't drug-test farmers who receive agriculture subsidies.

By larding up their Iowa teams with the historically subsidized and by endorsing crop insurance, Bush and Walker are trying to split the difference between looking conservative while appealing to Iowa primary voters.