Pork barrel farming

It looks as though it is again going to be "business as usual" in Congress when it comes to the final version of a new, four-year US farm bill now winding its way through the legislative process. The Reagan administration, for its part, was successful in making cuts in agricultural support programs in a version of the farm bill that passed the Senate last week. But now that the battle is moving to the House, taxpayes should not be lulled by discussion of the "cutbacks" already made in selected support levels.

True, the $10.8 billion Senate measure, passed laat Friday, was something like $2 billion less than what the Senate Agriculture Committee had wanted. But it was also $1.8 billion more than that originally sought by the administration. Moreover, in seeking a relatively safe "compromise" farm bill, the administration is sacrificing the possibility of commencing the larger national public policy debate that should now be held about moving the giant US farm economy away from government subsidies and toward a free-market approach. That is not necessarily to fault the present system. But given the huge federal outlays involved, the failure to take a comprehensive look at the degree to which existing polices are working or not working is unfortunate for the country , unfortunate for consumers, and -- in the long run -- unfortunate for the nation's farmers, many of whom would like to be set free from governmental interference just as businessmen now seek to lessen the grasp of excessive federal red tape.

The overall farm legislation now passed by the Senate is essentially a continuation of the type of special-interest policies found in the 1977 farm act which it is replacing. Although the 1977 act was originally promoted as a market-oriented measure, in fact it is geared to management of commodity supplies and prices through governmental intervention. Like that legislation, the new 1981 farm act, as now embodied in the compromise Senate Bill, is also supply-management oriented and would retain, for example, target price levels and costly price supports that too often pump precious taxpayer dollars into the hands of those farmers (and in some cases, corporations) least needing them.

Moreover, the way in which the current legislation has been crafted -- by cloakroom horsetrading -- again strongly patterns the way farm bills of past years have been spliced together. Consider sugar. The President, it will be recalled, gave up his opposition to price supports for sugar in exchange for votes from Southern lawmakers earlier this year for his economic program. There has not been a price-support program for sugar since 1978. Now, the Senate has enacted a new support program for sugar that could cost taxpayers as much as $1 billion next year in higher retail prices.

In light of the fact that the defense and social sectors of the budget are being not only cut but in some instances virtually reorganized, with the administration going so far as to consider the scrapping of two cabinet-level departments, it is incongruous that the entire farm budget should not be included in the national economic policy debate. Agriculture, after all, is one of the nation's largest industries. Both Mr. Reagan and Agriculture Secretary John Block have in the past advocated a free market for agriculture. Yet now that the farm bill is being put together discriminating philosophical attitudes seem to have been lost along the way.

In the long run the administration needs to grapple with the extent to which the present hodgepodge arrangement of subsidies and target levels fits the genuine needs of modern-day agriculture. Among issues that should be raised are whether there should be an end of target prices for such commodities as feed grain and wheat; the possibility of lower target prices for cotton and rice; and the restructuring of farmer reserves so that they become genuine orderly marketing tools that actually move products back into the consumer stream. Considering that some 60 million bushels of 1976 wheat are still held in such reserves, not to mention bushels of 1978 wheat, and 35 million bushes of 1979 wheat, it becomes apparent that the reserves are almost dead-end storage vaults for valuable food products. With the taxpayer, be it not forgotten, footing the bills.

Further, is there really any justification for enacting new subsidies for sugar at this time? And what sense does it make for the federal government, which has gone on public record as defining smoking as a public health problem, to provide lavish and continued financial backing to tobacco farmers?

In opting for a "consensus" farm bill the administration is buying what it considers short-term peace on the farm front. But what is really needed in agriculture is the type of soul searching and deeper restructuring that the Reagan team has brought to the nonfarm economy. There is time for that larger debate now that the House is considering the issue.

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