Serving Up A Farm Bill

Watching Congress hash out a farm bill doesn't inspire much confidence in the finished product. The lobbying, based on economic and regional interests, is fierce.

Perhaps surprisingly fierce, when you consider that the current legislation, passed in 1996, doesn't expire until next September. What has been driving the lobbyists is the worry that next year's federal budget guidelines will reflect a drooping economy and thus be less likely to accommodate generous farm subsidies.

The subsidies included in the bills passed by the House and under consideration by the Senate are generous, indeed. They may not become law this year, since even if the Senate passes a bill there'll be no time before recess to reconcile it with the House version. And Senate Republicans have dug in their heels, arguing that bigger federal payments will encourage overproduction and hurt farmers in the long run.

The '96 bill was an effort to rein in subsidies, but when farmers faced hard times Congress quickly overrode its own legislation with emergency spending measures. Hence the old system of big payments going to big commodity producers in a relatively few states remained pretty much intact. The bills considered this year, particularly the one passed by the House, could cement that system back in place.

The primary Senate bill, to its credit, included provisions that would shift a significant amount of federal money away from production payments and toward environmental protection. This would encourage farmers in sound environment practices, such as safe disposal of waste and better soil and land conservation.

The "green" money would be spread around more equitably to farmers in all parts of the country. It's an approach to federal aid for farmers that makes sense and clearly serves the public interest.

Ideally, when this legislation resurfaces next year, it should have an even greener hue. And if the prospect of federal red ink helps moderate crop subsidies, that's all right, too.

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