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The federal government delivered an extraordinary financial aid package to U.S. farmers this year, more than $20 billion, the highest level of farm subsidies in 14 years. Most of it was paid out with no congressional approval and little public debate. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: This past summer, Robert Henry was showing me his farming disaster. The fields along the Mississippi River near New Madrid, Mo., where he normally plants soybeans, were flooded.
ROBERT HENRY: It's just been so wet. They said it was the wettest year on history so far.
CHARLES: Just as bad, the soybeans he was able to grow weren't worth as much. China wasn't buying them in retaliation for the Trump administration's tariffs. There was some good news though. Government-subsidized crop insurance would cover some of the losses from flooding. Also, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had sent him a check just to compensate him for the damage from the trade war.
HENRY: We call it Trump money (laughter) is what we call it. And it helped a lot. Yeah. And it's my understanding they're going to do it again.
CHARLES: Indeed, a few weeks later, the USDA announced another round of trade-related aid to farmers, $16 billion on top of the previous year's 12 billion - $28 billion in two years. Here's agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue.
SONNY PERDUE: President Trump has a great affection for America's farmers and ranchers, and he knows that they are fighting the fight. And they are on the front lines.
CHARLES: The USDA's former chief economist, Joe Glauber, found the whole thing amazing.
JOE GLAUBER: I think I was surprised at that, that it didn't attract more attention.
CHARLES: Glauber, who's now at the International Food Policy Research Institute, says it deserves more attention for a bunch of reasons. This is more than the U.S. ended up paying to bail out the auto industry during the financial crisis of 2008. Yet the USDA just created this new program out of thin air. It decided that some old laws gave it the authority to spend the money.
GLAUBER: What's unique about this is, again - didn't go through Congress.
CHARLES: Some people have raised questions about whether it's legal. Also the payments are really generous. According to studies by several independent economists, the USDA is paying farmers roughly twice as much as the actual harm that they suffered from the trade war. And the payments are based on production. The bigger your farm, the bigger your payments. Thousands of farmers got checks for more than $100,000.
Catherine Kling, an economist at Cornell University, says the government could at least have demanded some public benefits in exchange for all that money.
CATHERINE KLING: I think it's a real lost opportunity.
CHARLES: What farmers do with their land has a huge impact on water quality and wildlife and climate change, Kling says. And the USDA has some programs that pay farmers to help the environment.
KLING: Putting wetlands back where they have been drained.
CHARLES: But the budget for those environmental programs is just a quarter the size of this year's trade-related payments.
KLING: Wow, it's so many things that money could get spent on that could really be beneficial to taxpayers, who are ultimately footing the bill.
CHARLES: On Capitol Hill, there's been an alliance for a long time between lawmakers who support farm subsidies and others who support food stamps, now called SNAP payments. Together, they support a big budget for the USDA, which runs both programs. This past year tested that alliance because the USDA was helping farmers while restricting SNAP payments. Here's Democratic Congresswoman Marcia Fudge from Cleveland.
MARCIA FUDGE: They've already given out $19 billion-plus to farmers, but they're cutting $5 billion from people in need. I don't even know how to describe it except for to say that it is cruel, it is unfair, and it is clearly designed to support the president's base as he sees it as opposed to those that he sees as being undeserving.
CHARLES: The USDA has not yet said whether farmers will get another round of trade-related payments next year.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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