Last week, after his speech to the Detroit Economic Club, I asked Sen. Rand Paul about a vote he cast earlier this year to continue federal subsidies to tobacco farmers for crop insurance.
Paul had just finished telling the crowd at the Motor City Casino that government programs hinder rather than help economic activity so, given his libertarian view of government programs, it’s odd that he would support a program that shackles tobacco farmers in his home state of Kentucky to the burden of federally-subsidized insurance. This is a man who once equated food stamps to slavery, after all.
Crop insurance subsidies sound a lot like Obamacare—Paul is a critic—for plants instead of people. You'd think Paul would want the government to get out of the way, so the free market would be better able to fulfill the crop insurance needs of his tobacco-growing constituents.
The junior senator from Kentucky has (mostly) been against farm subsidies in the past and he did mention his general opposition on Friday. However, when he had an opportunity to kill one of those subsidies, Paul apparently sided with the big government status quo. What happened?
Paul explained that he voted against the tobacco amendment—offered by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA)—because, he said, it wouldn’t have actually eliminated the subsidy.
“I don’t think the amendment was to cut the program,” Paul said, explaining that the issue was whether or not the program would be included in the budget or as an off-budget item.
However, back in May, the Lexington (KY) Herald-Examiner presented a very different interpretation of the amendment that McCain and Feinstein said would save taxpayers $33 million every year.
On Monday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced an amendment to the 2013 Farm Bill to drop the eight USDA tobacco insurance programs.
The Council for Burley Tobacco notified farmers of the proposed change Tuesday and asked them to contact Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, to urge him to oppose the amendment. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, opposes the change, the council said.
The Herald-Examiner even quoted industry lobbyists and tobacco farmers who were concerned that the amendment’s passage might drive some tobacco farmers out of business.
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr (R) spoke in opposition to the amendment in terms that made it clear he believed it would do more than move tobacco crop insurance “off budget.”
“The only thing this agricultural commodity asks is let us participate in the federal crop insurance program,” Burr said. “Don't do this to a piece of the agriculture community ... that contributes a lot to this country.”
Sen. McCain's staff also confirms the proposed amendment—it failed on a 44-52 vote—would have stripped public funding for the program.
"Senator McCain’s amendment would eliminate tobacco as a covered commodity for federal subsidies in crop insurance programs," said McCain spokeswoman Rachael Dean in an email. "The Congressional Budget Office projected that removing tobacco from these programs would reduce mandatory spending by about $37 million a year – a substantial savings that would be used to help pay down the federal deficit."
The non-partisan CBO concluded the amendment would save taxpayers $333 million between fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2023.
Crop insurance programs are bad policy across-the-board ,as McCain argued on the Senate floor last May: “[C]rop insurance in general has a dubious reputation as a ‘safety net’ for farmers because it largely insures against revenue loss instead of crop loss due to weather or pests. According to the Congressional Research Service, taxpayers spend about $14 billion a year to subsidize about 60% of the cost of crop insurance premiums. The federal government also reimburses private crop insurance companies for about 24% of their ‘administrative and operating’ costs.”
However, one might argue helping insure lettuce, corn, and apple crops serves a critical national interest—to make sure farmers grow enough food to feed all Americans—tobacco subsidies serves no such purpose.
Let’s be honest, tobacco farmers grow cancer. Sure, we all have to die from something and no one should tell adults they can’t enjoy a smoke. It's a free country after all. Still, there’s no reason the American taxpayer needs to help pay for your cigarette break.
Based on his vote, Rand Paul believes otherwise. So do 51 other U.S. senators, including Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Fine.I just wish Mr. Paul would be honest about his hypocrisy.