Help for Farmers

In many regions of the United States, farmers face a grim picture. Bad weather and its aftereffects have damaged and destroyed crops. Low prices - wheat down 30 percent; corn, 24 percent; soybeans, 26 percent - are an even bigger problem.

In one sense, farmers have simply produced too much food. But the Asian economic crisis has drastically cut farm exports. Congress's over-fondness for economic sanctions as a foreign-policy tool doesn't help. When the US bans exports to other countries, however righteous the reason, farmers here often reap the punishment.

In Washington, both parties have come up with plans to send federal help to the beleaguered countryside. Republicans propose a $4.2 billion package of disaster compensation to farmers.

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Democrats, led by President Clinton, want more - a $7.5 billion package, including $5 billion to lift the freeze on marketing-loan rates.

The GOP Congress capped the loan rates in the 1996 "Freedom to Farm" bill, in which it largely deregulated US agriculture. The idea was to reduce farmers' reliance on federal aid and give them more leeway in planting decisions. Mr. Clinton says he'll veto any bill that doesn't raise the caps.

Republicans rightly see the Democrats' maneuver as an attempt to unravel one of their major legislative accomplishments. They point out that lifting the marketing-loan rates, which allow farmers to withhold crops until prices rise, would encourage even more planting of crops already in surplus, making the problem worse.

In addition to their $4.2 billion proposal, Republicans point out that Congress has also moved up the date on which farmers can get $3 billion in market-transition payments for next year, for a total of $7.2 billion in aid.

This is no time to return to the 1930's-style farm subsidies that skewed production, ignored marketplace realities, and rewarded inefficiency.

The long-term answer is to stimulate demand for US goods. That means more trade and more trade agreements. It also means working closely with Japan to jump start its economy and help pull the Asian "tigers" out of their morass.

Sadly, when House Republicans recently tried to give the president fast-track authority to negotiate trade pacts, the White House stood by and did nothing to round up votes, denouncing it instead as an election-year ploy to divide Democrats.

It was - but that doesn't change the fact that the country needs a fast-track law. The president should stop issuing veto threats and start working to line up support for trade as a top priority when the new Congress convenes in January.

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