THE biggest hurdle for this year's farm bill is the budget. For months now, the conventional wisdom has held that farm programs would have to be cut because they got out of control in the second half of the 1980s.
But a few agricultural policymakers are starting to sing a different tune.
Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska, for example, has proposed a farm program that would offer farmers more flexibility by raising support prices for soybeans, oats, and barley. Translated, that means an increase in farm spending from an estimated $8.2 billion in fiscal 1990 to $13 billion a year.
That is not much when compared with the $25.8 billion spent in 1986, contends Tim Galvin, the senator's legislative assistant.
Although he does not support increases in farm support prices, economist Terry Francl of the conservative American Farm Bureau Federation also argues that current spending levels are not out of line with historic levels. Using a different measure of farm spending, he calculates that from fiscal 1965 through fiscal 1973, total agricultural outlays average $11.3 billion a year in 1988 inflation-adjusted dollars. In 1988, outlays stood at $17.2 billion and have declined since.
Total outlays stand at only about 1.1 percent of the total budget, he says. That percentage is the lowest in 25 years, with the exception of three years during the farming boom in the mid-70s. ``Is it inappropriate to spend 1 percent of the budget on farming?'' Mr. Francl asks.
Many in Congress still expect more cuts.
``We have had a steady ratcheting down of program outlays,'' acknowledges Dale Moore, agricultural assistant to Rep. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas. But ``we are going to get a letter from the budget committee that says we have to cut $1 billion to $1.5 billion. We can argue about it till we're blue in the face, but that's the reality.''
Former Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland is even more pessimistic because he thinks Democrats will take the Social Security surplus out of the budget, thus worsening the numbers and forcing Republicans and Democrats to come to grips with the budget. ``I think we will see this farm bill get dragged out all summer because it's going to get caught right in the middle of this,'' he says.
The severity of cuts will depend on what spending baseline the agricultural committees are given, congressional sources say. Cutting back $1 billion from a $12 billion budget will be much easier than cutting the same amount from a $10 billion budget, Mr. Moore says.