When they are successful, subsidies follow values and are sold to the public as desirable commodities. And, they should do what they claim they will do. During the years I lived in the Pacific Northwest, where hydroelectricity starts out cheap, most folks willingly went along with increases in their electric bills to “save the salmon.” It’s been a long time since I thought about that one. But, over the long weekend, I found myself reading a couple of books recently written by Chris Carlson. I knew Chris many years ago when he was press secretary to the then-young governor of Idaho, Cecil D. Andrus. You might say our trains passed in the night once or twice, as I was a daily newspaper reporter in Idaho for a few years covering politics and state government, where Chris lived. Nobody was surprised when Carlson went into the federal government when President Jimmy Carter named Andrus Secretary of the Interior. Now retired and finding time to write books, Carlson also put in a very distinguished career in corporate public affairs and consultancy after he left government. His books (see below) are works of reminiscing by a close confidant, not serious history, but they do offer insight as to what was happening on the inside of the Andrus phenomenon and how it succeeded so famously. Low electric rates subsidized by federal construction of hydroelectric dams were sacrosanct for the generation after the Great Depression. After 1970, however, values started to change, and, with salesmen like Andrus, so did the subsidies. Carlson was mostly a behind-the-scenes pro, but he did have his own “15 minutes of fame” as the first person appointed to the Northwest Power Planning Council. For more than 30 years, the NPPC’s eight-member board, including two appointments each from Washington, Oregon, Idahoand Montana, has used money from ratepayers to subsidize salmon recovery schemes in the Columbia and Snake River basins. From 2002-2012, spending to restore the wild salmon and steelhead runs added $7.32 billion to the region’s power bills. In his latest book, Carlson now calls that spending a “gargantuan waste” and says the region’s governors should just abolish the NPPC. When “billions wasted” becomes the end to too many stories involving government, we’ve got trouble. And, while it took Carlson 30 years to go public (at least in a book) with his conclusion the salmon subsidy was wasted, it often does not take that long to spot waste. New energy projects seem to be dropping like flies. Colorado’s “Abound Solar” was the promising prospect of rich and connected people who were in line as recently as 2010 to pick up a $400-million federal loan, but it is just a bankrupt hazardous waste site today. The taxpayers are out the $400 million. No wonder folks are skeptical about this whole subsidy business. They are increasingly feeling like schmucks. That brings us to the subject I do not even want to be thinking about but cannot avoid – the Farm Bill. It’s in trouble, and I think I know why. Try as they might, Farm Bill proponents are not doing enough to explain, let alone sell, the subsidies they pitch in the bill. I don’t see most of the subsidies contained in the bill as following enough widely held values. When required, cash payments or tax reductions taxpayers or ratepayers provide should be easily explained as being in the public interest. In other words, subsidies should be easy to explain. The NPPC did that, promising more salmon; it just did not deliver. Over the past decade, Farm Bills have delivered $84 billion for crop insurance, $59 billion in commodity payments and $62 billion for conservation. The real problem with the Farm Bill is that it is not easy to explain how these programs work and who benefits from them. It’s far easier to scare consumers with the threat of milk going to $7 or $8 a gallon after Jan. 1, 2014, if there is no new or extended Farm Bill because we’ll go back to 1949 dairy regulations. But food stamps will continue. At a cost of $75 billion in 2012, for a total of $764 billion during the past decade, food stamps will apparently continue to roll at current levels with or without a new or extended Farm Bill. Eligibility for food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), was expanded significantly in the 2008 Farm Bill. More households were made eligible by disregarding income spent on dependent care and by not counting retirement and education savings as assets. Expanded eligibility was supposed to cost $2.3 billion more over 5 years, or $7.82 billion over 10, but turned out to be much more, with 47 million Americans now getting SNAP payments through plastic electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards. Americans want to feed the needy and expected more spending on food stamps during the Great Recession. Now, with the economic recovery, most expect that cost curve should be bending down some. The “sell” for House Republicans in cutting $39 billion over 10 years seems more to punish recipients and, by not accepting anything near the 5-percent cut, House Democrats seem to be saying they have no confidence in the rebounding economy and the future of job creation. Neither side is very appealing. So there it lies, the Farm Bill of 2012 (now of 2013). Delayed, stuck in the mud, up a creek, looking messy, and very definitely coming down to the wire. Nobody really knows what is going to happen from here. Conferees have much work to do – on content, on selling, and on putting back together some semblance of the rural-urban coalition that used to turn these differing bills into law. Typical of our times, the structure of the 41-member conference committee is as much of a mess as Congress itself. Rather than use the conference committee to polish down the rough edges, the structure added “leadership conferees” to ensure that there can be a big partisan fight over food stamps. I’ve always tried to be optimistic, but they’re making it a lot harder these days. Experts say the final chapter of this Farm Bill can include only three possible outcomes:  1.) an agreement on a new Farm Bill; 2.) an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill for one or two years, or 3.) no agreement is reached. Most expect a new bill or an extension, with some significant reduction in direct payments to farmers. As for saving those salmon, Carlson has not given up. He thinks it would help to take out the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams, all located on the Snake River about 10 to 110 miles up from the Columbia River. These dam and lock systems built between 1962 and 1975 damage salmon runs while producing only about 1 percent of the region’s hydropower. Chances are, however, that they will remain in place for a long time as the four dams allow river barges to deliver Palouse wheat to market. And, if they were to come down, it would take a big subsidy from the federal government. (Chris Carlson’s published books include: “Medimont Reflections: Forty Years of Issues and Idahoans,” Ridenbaugh Press, 2013, and, “Cecil Andrus: Idaho’s Greatest Governor,” Caxton Press, 2011.)