NEW YORK — The building is one of the finest on Central Park West. Celebrity residents. Park views. Units priced at up to $24 million. It is most definitely not a farm.
But last year, the U.S. government sent $9,070 in farm subsidies to an apartment here.
Even the woman who got that money isn’t exactly sure why.
“I really don’t know,” Lisa Sippel said.
Sippel does own farmland, but it’s in Missouri. Somebody there does the work.
Still, Sippel gets the federal payments, which were originally meant to keep small farmers afloat. “I’m kind of an absentee landlord,” she said.
The money, it turns out, comes from one cockeyed farm-aid program that was supposed to end in 2003. It didn’t: Congress kept it alive and now hands out almost $5 billion a year using oddly relaxed rules.
As long as recipients own farmland, they are not required to grow any crops there. Or live on the farm. Or even visit it.
The program is one of Washington’s walking dead — “temporary” giveaway programs that have staggered on years beyond their intended expiration dates. Letting them live is an old and expensive congressional habit, still unbroken in this age of austerity.
Now, both the House and Senate are trying to kill off this budget leftover, 10 years late.
“It’s something that was supposed to die [that] has gotten an extra decade of life. So, do the math,” said Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, which has fought these subsidies for years. In all, the program has cost at least $46 billion more than it was supposed to.
For elected officials, a temporary program is a little act of political magic; it allows them to take credit for creating a program and also for ending it — all at once. The hard job, of course, is actually letting the thing die.
That task is pushed off to future officials, who often push it off again. So Washington is now full of “temporary” programs that are old enough to vote.
The Essential Air Service program, a subsidy for flights to small airports, was supposed to expire in 1988. It’s still alive. The widely popular research and development tax credit has been a temporary measure since 1981. It was renewed, along with more than 50 other temporary programs, in January’s “fiscal cliff” deal.
And — buried among the USDA’s array of aid programs for farmers — there is this death-cheating, farming-optional farm subsidy.
It has become a case study in how a temporary giveaway turns permanent, but it began in 1996 as an idea to save the government money.
A penny-pinching Republican Congress wanted to eliminate the complex system of subsidy payments that had begun in the New Deal, but it didn’t want to make farmers quit cold turkey.
So Congress devised a kind of nicotine patch for farm subsidies. The new program would pay out smaller and smaller amounts over seven years. Then it would end.
To make the changes more palatable to farmers, Congress loosened the requirements for getting the payments. They would be calculated based on a farmer’s past harvests. In the future, farmers could grow the same crops. Or different ones.
Or no crops at all. The money would still come.
“These are not welfare payments. These are declining market transition payments,” said then-Rep. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the architect of the plan. When those payments finally ended, Roberts promised, Congress would have finally gotten “the dead hand of government out of the business of farming.”
Roberts’ seven-year plan held up. For about two years.
Then, in 1998, farm income fell. A drought crippled harvests. The farm lobby howled for help. Congress complied by adding $2.9 billion in extra payments. The declining transition payments would no longer decline before their end date.
In 2002, Congress got rid of the end date, too.
Farm income was on another downswing then. The budget-cutting fever of the 1990s had passed. Congress renamed these giveaways “direct payments” — no longer a transitional measure but an expected, regular transfer from taxpayer to government to farmer.
Roberts voted “nay” as his temporary payments became permanent.
“I guess we put the seed of reform in the ground, and it sprouted up there for a while, and maybe it grew into a noxious weed,” Roberts, now a senator, said in a telephone interview last week.
In 2008, with Democrats in charge of Congress, the payments were renewed again. This time, Roberts was a “yea.” He worried that if they disappeared, legislators would come up with something more expensive and heavy-handed to replace them.
The payments were renewed one more time in January, through the end of 2013.
But problems have appeared. The features that had made these payments a good short-term political gesture — their relaxed rules and regular cash flow — made them terrible as a long-term aid program.
That’s because farm aid is supposed to be a safety net, ready during hard times.