What does sparkly styling spray for dogs have to do with the 2012 farm bill?
It's among the thousands of products U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing through little-known programs that have been embedded in the farm legislation for decades and that lawmakers are now fighting to extinguish.
The list of recipients of farm bill subsidies is long and sometimes laughable. There's money to study the healthfulness of peas and lentils. There are programs that support popcorn producers and winemakers. There's even a subsidy to encourage bird watching.
"I know that mothers all over America, that have advocated for their children to eat their peas, will be pleased to know that there is a study that is going to cost them $25 million to study peas, lentils and garbanzo beans," Sen. John McCain deadpanned on the Senate floor last week.
McCain, R-Ariz., is one of a handful of senators working to cut a variety of subsidy programs from the farm bill the Senate is now considering.
The massive farm bill sets policy and spending levels for the programs affecting agriculture, nutrition, conservation and forestry. It includes everything from crop subsidies to food stamps. The bill, last renewed in 2008, now costs $969 billion over 10 years, and senators hope to shave off $23 billion in savings.
But billions of dollars in the legislation are also dedicated to entities like the Market Access Program, which provides $200 million a year in taxpayer dollars to trade associations to promote U.S. products overseas.
Espree, the company that produces the styling spray for dogs ("Leaves the coat with specks of shiny glitter and aroma of Candy Cane") was aided by a taxpayer subsidy under MAP. But critics are more concerned about subsidies used to help much larger and more profitable companies like Blue Diamond, Sunkist and California Raisins, which received more than $93 million in federal funding since 1999 to market their products abroad.
"The truth is, MAP is classic corporate welfare that takes taxpayer dollars to benefit big businesses' bottom line," Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, told The Washington Examiner.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., targeted the MAP subsides last week with a farm bill amendment that would slash the program by 20 percent, in a move that aligns him with the Obama administration.
Coburn pointed out that not only are profitable businesses collecting subsidies, but in many cases, there is duplication and overlap with other agencies.
The Popcorn Board, for instance, gets $250,000 annually from the Department of Agriculture, yet a Nebraska-based gourmet popcorn maker received help with sales in Japan from Food Export USA, which took in $11.2 million from the MAP program in 2012.
"The time has come to debate whether the federal government should be in the business of promoting private-market goods to foreign buyers," Coburn said.
Vincent Smith, an economics professor at Montana State University and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the MAP subsidies can be of great benefit to smaller businesses that can't afford to advertise outside the United States and are often overshadowed by larger companies producing the same products.
"A legitimate question," Smith said, "is whether or not that should be funded by a levy on the industry or by taxpayers."