Ms. Lincoln, in the tall cotton

Wednesday, August 25, 2010; A18

WHEN LAST WE checked on U.S. agricultural policy, the Obama administration was paying Brazil $147.3 million to settle its international trade lawsuit over U.S. cotton subsidies, thus freeing Washington to continue lavishing taxpayer money on wealthy farmers in Arkansas, home state of politically embattled Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln. We thought this might represent policy sausage-making at its least attractive.

No such luck. As The Post's Alec MacGillis reported, Ms. Lincoln, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, is now demanding $1.5 billion in "disaster aid" for already-subsidized farmers in Arkansas and other states, mostly in the South. Even the usually farm-friendly Senate balked; the extra spending threatened to sink a $20 billion small-business aid bill that President Obama supports. So White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel got her to relent in return for his promise to find the money elsewhere by the end of August. Officials are scouring the federal government for cash.

It's true that unusually heavy rains at harvest time swamped many cotton and other farms in the Deep South last year. In Arkansas, row-crop operations earned $3 billion, 12 percent less than pre-harvest forecasts and less than they made in 2008, a bumper year -- but a slight improvement over 2007. In short, a difficult but hardly biblical situation. And compared with other claimants on federal money and compassion -- black farmers still seeking $1.2 billion for past government discrimination, say, or victims of Haiti's earthquake -- the plight of Arkansas agriculture seems secondary indeed.

It usually takes at least a 30 percent loss in farmers' anticipated revenue to trigger federal disaster relief. Among Arkansas' major crops in 2009, only heavily subsidized cotton suffered average losses in that range, according to a University of Arkansas study. The average rice farmer was down just 3.6 percent. But Ms. Lincoln makes no attempt to sort out the neediest cases. Her plan would send a check equal to 90 percent of the usual subsidy to anyone with a revenue shortfall of 5 percent or more. Ratio Farms of Helena, Ark., stands to receive $787,000 on top of the $874,000 in ordinary subsidies it has already gotten, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.

If you think this looks like a back-door plan to almost double almost everyone's subsidy, we agree with you. Even more dubious is the funding source Ms. Lincoln wants the White House to raid: Section 32, an obscure permanent appropriation within the Agriculture Department. The USDA normally must spend it on food for needy children, but a loophole lets the secretary of agriculture divert some money to shore up "farmers' purchasing power." This is the loophole that would have to be exploited now.

It would not be the first time. As Ms. Lincoln noted, the Bush administration raided Section 32 for $900 million in aid to drought-stricken cattlemen in 2002, and for $423 million for Florida fruit and vegetable growers in 2004 -- both election years. But Ms. Lincoln's request exceeds those two combined. And since when do George W. Bush's practices constitute precedent for Democrats?

In fact, the 2008 farm bill, passed over Mr. Bush's veto, sought to end notoriously recurrent, and notoriously expansive, "relief" demands. It established a fund that farmers afflicted by truly epic events could tap if they bought federally subsidized crop insurance to cover more mundane losses. But most Southern farmers opted out, arguing that insurance was a bad deal for them. Ms. Lincoln, it seems, was their insurance policy.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company