Saturday, December 12, 2009

Transparency Is Good, Even If It Hurts

The Environmental Working Group led the way with its FOIA request to get farm payment data from FSA and putting the data up on the Internet.  News organizations are following the precedent--here is a CBS report from Florida spotlighting FSA payments made to dead persons.  They matched data from the SSA's death index to payment data from EWG's database to identify such cases. 

I find the matching interesting because one of the conditions under which USDA provided the data was that social security numbers were replaced in the data by constructed numbers, meaning EWG doesn't have social security numbers.  But, given the advances in computing it was presumably easy enough for CBS to match using name and address from EWG's files to the name and address from SSA's files--they got along without the SSN.

There's some misinformation in the article--notably when an EWG type compares making welfare payments to a dead person with making farm payments to a dead person.  The comparison is invalid, because the farm payment goes with the land, not the person. And I wonder how many cases there are of the heirs leaving an estate open just out of inertia and procrastination. As usual the media and critics make things seem simpler than the reality is, at least the reality seen by a good bureaucrat.  But the bottom line is, if FSA doesn't follow its rules, people should be able to find out.  And if people think the rules are wrong, then in a democracy they can get them changed.

Under the Obama adminstration's open government initiatives, I'd like to see FSA put up its own database, including all the data it gives to EWG, plus the matching to SSA's files.  Of course, that would take resources FSA doesn't have, so maybe it's better to out-source this stuff to EWG and the media.


Anonymous said...

The DCP program runs from October 1 through September 30. FSA makes advance payments anytime the producer requests from December 1 through September 30. The final payment is made after October 1 of the year of harvest. So if a producer dies in August after the crop is planted but before the final payment is made, who should the payment go to? What if the producer dies on September 29 or 30th. This scenario does not take into account counter cyclical payments that can be made a year after the harvest. If the payment is otherwise earned who should FSA pay??

Bill Harshaw said...

Okay, to try to clarify my point. When I die, my annuity check from OPM will stop. (I suspect they'd prorate out the right amount, though it might be simplest to just pay my estate the full month amount for the time I die.) So in the case of annuities, we can agree the payment goes with the person, and stops with the person. In the case of the various contracts, I think usually the contract will bind the person to perform, or not perform, certain things on the land. (In the old days, the operator had to maintain the set aside or ACR through the growing year. Under the new program concepts, there's little enough to be performed, except maybe not planting fruits and vegetables or constructing houses.) And there are succession in interest provisions in the contract. It's an interesting subject, may do another post on it.