I’ve often wondered how it is that, whenever we get to talking about ways to downsize the federal bureaucracy and balance the national budget, the Department of Agriculture always seems to escape any major scrutiny. I suppose that, in the grand scheme of things, their many meddlesome programs don’t run up nearly the same tab as some of the larger federal departments, but seeing as how some of their primary functions are divided between willfully distorting market signals and catering to special interests, you’d think they’d be a prime candidate for cutting out waste, fraud, and abuse.

Alas, the reality is quite the contrary: The USDA has too many politically unassailable, feel-good claims in its self-justification repertoire to mention, claims like “helping out the small family farmer” and “protecting the environment,” ostensibly with programs like these (via CNSNews):

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it spent $55 million in fiscal 2012 to support 748 “specialty crops” across the country – benefiting everything from fruit and nuts in California to an “interactive wine trail” in Massachusetts to the promotion of Michigan-grown Christmas trees and poinsettias.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack lamented that such support programs will not be funded in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 unless Congress passes the pending farm bill…

…Thirty percent of the grants went for “marketing and promotion” of specialty crops, which are defined as “fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture).”

“These investments will support local and regional markets, and improve access to healthy food for millions of children and supply thousands of farmers markets, restaurants and other businesses with fresh, high-quality fruits and vegetables. The grants also help growers solve technology needs or make better informed decisions on profitability and sustainability, leading to stronger rural American communities and businesses,” Vilsack added.

No, Secretary Vilsack — a thousand times, no. The federal government does not make wise or profitable “investments” that strengthen economies, the federal government doles out special treatment that picks economic winners and losers based on political preferences and lobbying clout. The agriculture sector neither needs nor deserves special treatment just by virtue of it producing food, and yet no other economic sector has been so relentlessly coddled and convoluted by subsidies, protectionism, and red tape.

Funny how the very people that the USDA’s many billion-dollar programs are ostensibly designed to help, are actually hurt the most: The majority of Ag’s direct payments go to large agribusiness growers of the “big five” crops, not small family farmers; they have effectually cemented the standing of a government-run crop-insurance racket that actually makes insurance more expensive for farmers; they enforce arbitrary price controls and ceilings that may help some niche markets in the short-term but in the long-term make everybody poorer; and they incentivize farmers to bring marginal land into production, which comes at an environmental cost. This is all just off the top of my head, by the way.

The fact that we’re currently running up a national deficit of over a trillion dollars, and the USDA feels that it can honestly justify programs like these, is nothing short of egregious.