Farm policy: more of the same

THE $141 billion, five-year farm bill passed by the United States House of Representatives is a credible -- but expensive -- response to what for most federal lawmakers is an especially difficult economic and political challenge. Simply put, too many farmers are facing financial disaster at a time of economic uncertainty for lawmakers to boldly restructure existing farm programs. That is particularly the case given the election context -- with lawmakers facing voters next year, when farm foreclosures and spiralling agricultural debt will be major issues in rural communities.

As noted by officials of the Department of Agriculture, the House measure, which passed by a solid 282-to-141 vote, is a bill that all parties to the farm issue can work with in conference committee proceedings. The vote favoring the bill was genuinely bipartisan. Indeed, if the White House still has qualms about signing into law a costly new farm bill, as it has said it does, it need only look across Capitol Hill to the Senate. Senators are working on their own version of a farm bill that would be even more generous to farmers.

Although we would have preferred a more innovative approach aimed at reducing farm outlays, the House bill is evidently the best compromise that could be fashioned in the current setting. The measure retains the existing farm program structure. Farm support programs are continued at current levels. The House rejected a bold proposal that would have allowed a referendum by farmers on mandatory production controls for certain crops. But the House measure provided for increases in food stamp benefits, w hile establishing conservation programs.

In short, the House bill is a hodgepodge that mirrors the hesitance of many congressmen over budget cutbacks. Lawmakers know that the federal deficit is out of control. But they are unwilling, or unable, to make deep cuts in costly federal programs such as agriculture.

Their reluctance can certainly be understood. Still, US agriculture -- precisely because it is such a success story, with its continuing surpluses -- warrants the same attention to cost controls and reform as is now called for in other major federal programs, such as defense.

What is urgently needed is an across-the-board and bipartisan federal examination of the US farm economy in general -- much like the recent commission on the social security system.

Federal farm costs are too high. There is too much overproduction, too much fencepost-to-fencepost planting -- originally spurred on, it must be observed, by the federal government itself. The farm economy needs to set a better balance between demand for food and food production. Farmers need more imaginative overseas marketing programs. And distribution channels to get ample food stocks to a hungry world need to be upgraded.

The House-passed farm bill is a good starting place. But lawmakers should look beyond this bill, and this year, toward a bipartisan effort to bring a reasonable balance to the farm economy.

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