Down on the Farm? Hardly.

The tome containing the president's 2006 annual budget proposal to Congress doesn't actually look that much smaller from previous ones, but it contains one of the most austere budgets in years.

A huge deficit, two costly wars, tax cuts, and the tremendous expenses associated with expanding the largest government department to be created since World War II - Homeland Security - dictate such needed fiscal discipline.

By necessity, but hopefully by design as well, one area of the budget - farm subsidies - is taking a significant, and welcome, cut.

Though farm income has doubled in the past two years, farm subsidies have illogically risen nearly 40 percent over that time. And the subsidies are hardly fair: More than two-thirds of them go to the top 10 percent of farm producers. Farm subsidies also have served as an incentive for US farmers to expand and overproduce - sending US land prices up and commodity prices down. They've even helped shut down small family farms.

The Bush budget reduces payments to farmers by 5 percent and puts a cap of $250,000 on payments to farmers instead of the current $360,000. It also closes a big loophole that allowed farmers to "double-dip" at the federal trough. Agriculture officials say that will amount to a savings of some $5.7 billion over the next decade.

But farmers and politicians, especially in the Midwest and the South, already are mobilizing to oppose President Bush's bold, if politically risky, step. Many naysayers from the president's own party threaten to block passage of this needed measure. Instead of spending time fighting, members of Congress should be working to convince their constituents that farmers don't need these big government handouts.

By reducing subsidies, the global marketplace can better decide crop values. That the US intends to limit farmers' dependence on federal dollars should also help advance global trade talks, where farm subsidies remain a stumbling block. Lower government payments will help give an agricultural leg up to third world farmers burdened by cheap American exports, thus fighting poverty. And the move should encourage other countries to reduce their own agricultural subsidies.

Mr. Bush can be commended for taking this radical stance, especially as it reverses his previous position to maintain farm subsidies under the 2002 Farm Bill. It's abundantly clear that when the government gives away some $4 billion to American cotton farmers on top of a crop valued at just $3.8 billion, as they did in 2001-2002, something's got to give.

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