Moving to offset the impact his trade war has had on rural America, President Trump has bypassed Congress to send some $20 billion in aid to farmers, mostly going to a bundle of states that are essential to his reelection chances next year.
The payments have ranged from as little as $2 for some small-scale farmers to more than $1 million each for some corporate agricultural enterprises.
The strategy bears some resemblance to the one Trump used to shift millions of dollars that Congress appropriated for the military to pay for sections of his border wall. Unlike the border wall money, however, the farm aid has not drawn challenges from Congress, perhaps because Democrats have their own political reasons for not wanting to oppose help for rural areas in politically important states.
The payments are likely to reach nearly $25 billion by early next year, making them roughly twice the net cost to taxpayers of President Obama’s auto industry bailout during the Great Recession of 2008. Even so, they may fall short of fully covering farmers’ losses from the trade war with China or fully mitigating the political fallout Trump has faced in some Midwestern communities.
It’s not that farmers are in open revolt against Trump. Surveys and interviews suggest most are sticking with him and hoping for the best. But the trade war’s impact — especially the uncertainty about future policies — could dampen enthusiasm come election day next year.
To sidestep Congress, which has long considered price supports for farmers its exclusive domain, the administration cited an obscure law from the 1940s that was passed in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.
Until Trump, no president had ever used that law to make direct payments to farmers, let alone tens of billions.