Obama’s Rich Revelation

Peter Orszag’s mission improbable.

Barack Obama yesterday introduced his new White House budget director, Peter Orszag, vowing to conduct a “line by line” review of the federal fisc. Most incoming chief executives promise that sort of thing. But here’s a detail that really caught our eye: As part of his plan to kill government programs “that have outlived their usefulness,” the President-elect singled out farm subsidies for the rich.

[Review & Outlook] AP

President-elect Barack Obama and Peter Orszag.

If he really means it, this would be big news. Mr. Obama cited a recent Government Accountability Office report that found that of the 1.8 million people receiving farm payments from 2003 to 2006, nearly 3,000 had incomes above $2.5 million, which ought to make them ineligible for aid. Nevertheless, they cashed in to the tune of some $49 million. Having written 40,000 or so editorials against this corporate welfare over the years, we’d love to see a Democrat join the fight.

However, there is the small matter of where Senator Obama was on this issue when we really needed him. The 2008 farm bill — which set national policy for five years — was a perfect chance for real change thanks to surging crop prices, record farm income and a President unconcerned about re-election.

President Bush actually sought a $200,000 annual income cap on subsidy payments, but Congress couldn’t bring itself to vote on anything below $750,000. And even that got killed by the likes of Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, who as it happens helped Mr. Orszag get his current job running the Congressional Budget Office. The Members ended up passing a $300 billion bill in which nearly every crop, from corn to sugar, won subsidy increases. Mr. Bush vetoed it in May but was overridden.

The vote in the Senate was 82 to 13. Mr. Obama missed the roll call, issuing a campaign statement saying that the bill was “far from perfect” and would have preferred “tighter payment limits.” However, he added that “with so much at stake, we cannot make the perfect the enemy of the good.” And he then went on to rake Mr. Bush and John McCain (who opposed the bill) for “saying no to America’s farmers and ranchers, no to energy independence, no to the environment, and no to millions of hungry people.” In other words, given the chance to support cuts in farm subsidies for the rich, Mr. Obama chose instead to attack his Republican opponents for doing precisely that.

The Office of the Presidency can be educational for its occupants. So perhaps Mr. Obama has had a revelation now that he knows he will soon be responsible for any excessive spending. Given his plan to spend some $500 billion to $700 billion on “stimulus,” he’s going to need every penny in savings he can get. We can’t wait to see Mr. Orszag lead the charge against his former patrons on Capitol Hill.

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