Down, on the Farm Bill

The powerful agriculture lobby once again has prevailed in getting the Senate to pass a farm bill heavy on subsidies and lean on fostering financial independence for farmers.

The Senate, however, should receive some credit for at least voting to cap subsidies at $275,000 per farm per year. Under the House bill, some big farms could get twice that. But the Senate bill also authorizes $45 billion in new spending - a 26 percent increase over current programs and $7 billion more than the House bill. Much of that is pork and will worsen the government's expected deficit.

As in the past, the top 10 percent of farmers in a small number of states with big agricultural bases would receive the most money. The 60 percent of farmers who don't produce certain major commodities would receive no subsidies whatsoever. And the Senate bill still pushes farmers to overproduce, thus lowering prices and triggering more subsidies.

Upcoming midterm elections also are influencing the debate. Key races in farm states, such as South Dakota and Minnesota, could tip the political balance in the House or Senate.

Is there such a thing as an ideal farm bill? Reducing or capping subsidies would be a start. The 1996 farm bill tried to do that, but was diluted as Congress passed emergency subsidies whenever prices dropped.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, himself a farmer, has proposed that the government help individual farmers afford insurance that would protect against big swings in income as crops fail or markets shift. This help would be available to all farmers and would deal with the vicissitudes of agriculture, but without the steady pork of massive subsidies. And it doesn't cost nearly as much.

Increased spending on sound environmental practices included in the Senate version is another element that deserves a place in a good farm bill. This money serves the public and goes to farmers across the board.

Better ideas are at hand, but if Congress can't create a bill that avoids market distortions, increases farm exports, underscores environmental concerns, and stays within new budget spending limits, the president should veto what comes to his desk.

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