THE HOUSE and Senate Agriculture committees are under enormous pressure to help reduce the deficit by cutting the costly farm programs under their wing. But Sen. Quentin Burdick, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, is celebrating this need for austerity by doing the opposite. He has planted in the Senate version of the agriculture appropriations bill an entire new farm support program -- for sunflower growers.
There are relatively few of them; most are in his state of North Dakota. The value of the flowers lies in their seeds, which are crushed for oil. The usual web of argument is advanced in behalf of supports: everyone else does it, therefore so must we.
As with sugar, the greedy villains in this case are said to be the Europeans. They used to import U.S. sunflower seeds; now they have started to subsidize their own production as an alternative to traditional crops, of which they have too much, and have become oilseed exporters. Other U.S. edible oil producers can withstand the competition because their crops -- soybeans, cotton -- are supported by the government. The tiny sunflower industry can't.
The sunflower people say that they come to the government reluctantly and that to some extent it owes them. They'd prefer to go it on their own -- that's why many got out of wheat and soybeans and into sunflowers in the first place -- and it helps the government to have acres in sunflowers rather than such supported crops as wheat, which we grow in surplus. The program would be temporary -- the bill only provides funds for one year -- to give Congress time to rethink all the edible oil supports. The cost would be small; the market price is not expected to be far below the target price of 8 cents a pound next year, and there is a cap of $18 million on expenditures. If claims exceed that, payments will have to be prorated.
So why not give the ground? It's a small amount of money for a decent enough cause; the alternative is to cede another market to the insatiable Europeans. The reason why not is that it's wrong. The whole problem with world agriculture today is that there is too much government support and too much production. Governments have to back off, and the major countries, including the United States, have set that as a goal. Every producing group says fine, but don't do it at our expense; don't do it now; make the other fellow back off first. When will it happen then? For reasons of agricultural as well as fiscal policy, we don't need another support program, however small and well-intentioned (as are they all). We need less of the support programs we already have.