Walker freed his state's government workers from such compulsion. This week, senators should extend the same courtesy to America's farmers, many of whom are forced by federal law to pay for government-run marketing programs. These are funded by "checkoff" payments that farmers must make to their respective commodity boards. If the farmers fail to make the payments, the secretary of agriculture is authorized to fine them anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000.
The money goes to fund what is known as the Agricultural Marketing Service. You've probably never heard of AMS, but you've seen its ads - for example, "Got Milk?" and "Beef. It's what's for dinner." Unless members of Congress stand up and prevent it this week, farmers will have to continue funding these vague commodity advertisements under penalty of law.
To be sure, there is no shortage of other reasons to oppose this year's farm bill. It contains almost $770 billion in regular welfare in the form of food stamps, plus billions in corporate welfare -- $43.2 billion for commodity programs (checks for large corporate farms growing corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton); $94.6 billion for crop insurance subsidies; and tariff protections for American sugar growers, which transfer wealth to them at domestic consumers' expense. There's also the Market Access Program, which spends $200 million a year marketing select agricultural products overseas. Apparently, the $18-billion-a-year California wine industry cannot pay for its own wine tastings in Hong Kong.
Unlike these agricultural programs, AMS and its "Got Milk?" ads are funded by contributions from commodity producers, not taxpayers. But that doesn't excuse the use of government coercion to keep the program running.
When Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., offered an amendment to make the checkoff programs voluntary, the American Soybean Association responded with a letter claiming, "Our members see the checkoff programs as an investment in their families' future, which they and their fellow producers have voluntarily adopted." But if the American Soybean Association's members really see the checkoff contributions as "an investment in their families' future," then the American Soybean Association should have no objection to making the program truly voluntary.
Just as the federal government has no business propping up some crops' prices through tariffs, or subsidizing outright the production of others, it also has no business coordinating marketing campaigns at home or abroad. Any conservative who is truly interested in reducing the size and scope of the federal government should vote against this farm bill. But at the very least, conservatives should vote for DeMint's amendment, and restore real meaning to the word "voluntary."