Shell Game

NEXT time you're eating peanuts at the ballpark, you might ponder this tale between innings.

Close readers of these columns will recall that Congress last week passed a new farm bill, which the president has signed into law. The bill phases out support programs for most crops over a seven-year period, during which farmers will get a fixed sum regardless of market prices. Some crops will, unfortunately, continue to receive government price supports, among them sugar and peanuts.

The way subsidies get handed out leads to some intriguing situations. Take, for example, the regulations for New Mexican Valencia peanuts. Valencia peanuts are the ones you buy at the ball park, roasted in their shells. New Mexican peanuts get higher subsidies than those grown in neighboring Texas. But some New Mexico peanut farmers prefer to grow their Valencias in the Lone Star State, where growing conditions are favorable.

The federal Agriculture Department, for reasons probably clear to it, has willingly classified Texas-grown peanuts as New Mexican if New Mexico farmers grew them.

Understandably, this arrangement was not welcomed by New Mexico farmers who grew all their peanuts in New Mexico. They worried about an avalanche of Texas-"New Mexico" nuts in the market. Something had to be done. So they went to influential New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici (R), who got together with Rep. Larry Combest (R) of Texas. The two negotiated an agreement, included in the new farm bill, that says only those Texas-grown peanuts grown by New Mexicans who were growing peanuts in Texas between 1990 and 1995 can be considered as New Mexico peanuts for subsidy purposes. It also put a limit on how many Texas nuts could qualify.

We could observe here that this legislative behavior doesn't quite square with trying to balance the budget. Or that, for a party supposedly trying to change the way things are done in Washington, it smacks of business as usual. But maybe it's best just to remind everyone concerned that pork adds up. It ain't peanuts.

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