FOR ALMOST A YEAR NOW, Congress has been debating a five-year farm bill costing upward of $280 billion, to replace the one that expired in October. The business of showering federal money on farmers has always been a little grotesque. Lately, it is becoming downright dysfunctional. The House-Senate conference committee is at an impasse over how to fund billions of dollars in new spending. Unless the president signs yet another one-week extension, current farm law will expire tomorrow. For legal reasons, federal farm policy would revert to the rules laid down in 1938 and 1949 agriculture statutes, throwing crop support programs into chaos and -- more alarming -- possibly eliminating authority to provide new international food aid.
Congress has reached this point mainly because farm-state senators insisted on larding the legislation with even more costly subsidies than the House provided. In particular, Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) have rolled out $2.5 billion worth of tax breaks for biofuels, wind energy and thoroughbred racehorses. Mr. Baucus and fellow Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota are determined to create what they call a permanent disaster relief fund, priced at about $4 billion over the next five years. Ostensibly, the idea is to set up a safety net for farmers beset by bad weather. In reality, the program is a subsidy for those who grow crops or raise livestock on perennially dry, environmentally fragile, land -- much of it in Montana and the Dakotas.
Neither the Senate nor the House put any meaningful means test on direct payments to farmers, so these wasteful handouts are slated to run at least $5 billion per year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has resisted the Senate's spending and tax excesses, telling her colleagues from that body that she won't countenance cuts in food stamps to pay for them. On this, she is in rare agreement with President Bush, who charged on Tuesday that the conferees are contemplating no less than $16 billion in spending increases "masked in part by budgetary gimmicks and funded in part by additional tax revenues."
The president correctly announced that, "[w]ith record farm income, now is not the time for Congress to ask other sectors of the economy to pay higher taxes in order to increase the size of government." Given their inability so far to find a mutually acceptable way to pay for the Senate's extra goodies, the president told the conferees to send him a one-year extension of existing law -- and let a new Congress and administration revisit the matter in 2009. We hope that the president's admonition is enough to bring the conference to a reasonable conclusion; a new farm bill is the only way to get much-needed increases in nutrition and conservation, but if the effort fails, no bill might be better than a truly awful one.