Democrats have received less than a tenth of that. But the debate over farm subsidies is complicated.
Farm subsidies are one of the most hotly debated issues in national food policy. Some critics, such as Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute, call for their complete elimination, others, such as journalists Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, advocate their radical reform, blaming them for exacerbating our national obesity crisis and encouraging unsustainable industrial agriculture. Still others, including prominent lawmakers, economists, and agribusiness leaders, defend their valuable role in maintaining national security and supporting family farms.
In fact, the only thing that's not up for debate in this whole morass is that the questions of agricultural subsidies is incredibly divisive—it's an issue that can crush the most sanguine observer's dreams of clarity and consensus.
Which is why this chart, showing which Members of the 112th Congress (or their spouses) have received direct, taxpayer-funded payments from the USDA between 1995 and 2009, is so interesting. Put together by the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy nonprofit, the data shows that 23 Members of Congress, or their family members, have received nearly $6 million dollars in federal farm support payments over the past 15 years. And, as you might expect, there is a sharp political divide among the recipients:
Among the members of the 112th Congress who collect payments from USDA are six Democrats and 17 Republicans. The disparity between the parties is even greater in terms of dollar amounts: $489,856 went to Democrats, but more than 10 times as much, $5,334,565, to Republicans.
Journalists have lost no time in attacking Tea Party Republican subsidy recipients, who campaigned on an anti-welfare platform of cutting federal spending, for their hypocrisy. For example, Representative Stephen Fincher, a Republican from Frog Jump, Tennessee, and his family have received more than $3 million in "hand-outs" from the government. When ABC's Diane Sawyer asked him about the payments last night, Fincher refused to say whether or not he would continue to accept subsidies, instead responding:
We need a good, better, we need a better farm program and we need to streamline it. We need to look at many many options. And that's a long way off.
Coincidentally (or not), Fincher, Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), Jim Costa (D-California), Vicky Hartzler (R-Missouri), Timothy Huelskamp (R-Kansas), Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas), Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota), and Marlin Stutzman (R-Indiana) all received USDA payments, and are all on the House Committee on Agriculture, which recently sent a letter to Budget Chairman Paul Ryan suggesting that the government should cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps low-income Americans purchase food, rather than automatic subsidies to farms.
Given that the current salary for members of the House and Senate starts at $174,000 per year, it's tempting to question whether these particular subsidy payments are a good investment of taxpayer money. Either way, I'd suggest that those of our elected representatives who are responsible for shaping federal policy in such a sensitive area might want to turn down this money to avoid a pretty clear conflict of interest.