Two versions of farm legislation are now circulating in Washington. The House has adopted a measure including $141 billion in subsidies over the next five years. The Senate will begin work this week on a measure adopted by its Agriculture Committee so generous that its provisions would exceed the agreed budget ceiling set for the first year of operation by at least $9 billion.
The cost the bills is staggering, close to the record $52.8 billion spent over the last four years. Nevertheless, the nation could muster these resources if, as congressmen are saying, this is the price of protecting the American farm.
But it isn't. The two bills represent a sly and deceptive collection of special-interest protection measures pushed by a skillful coalition of representatives and senators, using the very real crisis of the basic American farm, that indeed requires federal help, to veneer outrageous subsidies for tax havens, giant corporate operations and gilt-edged programs for peanut, sugar and dairy producers that are rip-offs, unconscionable burdens on the consumer.
"Less than 20% of the $54 billion in benefits and subsidies provided in this farm bill are directed to farmers who are experiencing financial distress," Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate committee, asserted. Administration officials think it is even less.
There is certainly a crisis for many farmers, particularly those who rushed to expand with overpriced real estate, counting on a prolongation of inflation and strong export markets that proved illusory. But average farm income exceeds the national average, and 72% of farmers have no financial distress.
The casual largess at consumers' expense of the farm interests on Capitol Hill will continue out of control unless voters start asking their representatives in Washington to stop the nonsense. California voters should be asking that question of the 19 state representatives, most from urban areas, who supported the profligate farm bill in the House on Oct. 8, and the 34 who earlier had voted to defeat an effort to bring the sugar program down to more reasonable levels.
There are things that need to be done and can be done. Target prices, which provide income security to farmers without direct impact of market prices, are an appropriate transitional measure as farmers adjust prices to world market levels. There is, however, no validity to the five-year freeze in target prices proposed in the House. Loan rates, which can render American farm products non-competitive in the world market, need to be adjusted quickly to reflect the market price, with wide discretion for the secretary of agriculture. If prices of American products do not come down, farmers will be in far worse trouble, for they will lose the export market that has absorbed 40% of production. This problem will not be solved by the export subsidies proposed in the House legislation. They are wasteful, disruptive and have already invited countermeasures from the European Community.
There are positive elements in the House and Senate bills.
Among the most important are provisions to broaden eligibility and benefits for food stamps. Both branches of Congress have wisely resisted the Administration's dangerous move to offer optional block grants to states in place of food stamps, a step that would weaken and could ultimately destroy the single nationwide floor of minimum protection to the poor that food stamps provide in each of the 50 states.
The erosion-control incentives now written in the House bill are another useful measure. They will help end the "sodbuster" policies of the past that encouraged utilization of marginal lands with terrible loss of topsoil. No elements of the farm bill are worse than the programs to perpetuate special sugar, dairy and peanut programs for the benefit of relatively small groups of producers at enormous cost to consumers. Sugar growers now receive, through government price manipulation, the highest per acre subsidy of any farmers. The protectionism afforded this elite denies desperately poor nations full access to the American market. The high prices perpetuated by the dairy program are an unfair burden on all consumers and create a special handicap for the poor because they reduce the quantity of dairy products for special nutrition programs.
Some optimists argue that the rough places in the rival farm bills will be smoothed in the Senate-House conference committee that must eventually reconcile differences and that a useful bill will emerge. That will happen only if voters start paying attention, prodding congressmen to show concern for the national interest--yes, even at the expense of the special interests.