AS IF IT didn't already have enough to do, the federal government is, at one remove, the world's largest beekeeper. It works through the honey price support program established after World War II. Bees had been important in the great war effort; their honey helped to make up for the sugar shortage, and their wax was used in waterproofing war materiel. The industry was classified as war-essential.
When peace broke out, an instant bee surplus developed, and the keepers went to Congress for support. The rationale was partly that the country still needed bees, for pollination. For a long time the program was mostly dormant. But beginning in the early 1980s, the support price, which was tied to the inflation rate, rose well above the world price for honey. The pattern was similar to that for other crops: cheaper foreign honey became more attractive, imports rose, and U.S. producers began selling to the government.
In the 1985 farm bill, the administration and some members of Congress tried to phase out the honey program. They failed. The critics, particularly Rep. Silvio Conte, then tried over several years to cap payments to any individual producer at $250,000 a year. There are only about 2,000 commercial beekeepers in the country, and some were drawing more than $1 million a year from the Treasury. After several false starts, a firm cap was finally put in place last year. Then, in the reconciliation act adopted as Congress went home, some language appeared whose effect would be to lift the cap. Sens. John Melcher and David Pryor did the deed.
Defenders say the program is tiny, that entire small communities in the Dakotas and other producing states depend on the supports and that every other country supports its agriculture, which is why the United States must, too. The alternative is simply to withdraw from world markets.
All of which may be true, or near enough -- and there still shouldn't be a federal honey price support program. It isn't honey; it's pork. The government has no more business propping up honey producers than it does hardware stores or pet shops . . . or sunflower growers. The deficit-reducers did that, too, as they were going home. The deliveryman here was Sen. Quentin Burdick. He had tried to put a price support program for oilseeds in the reconciliation bill and had been rebuffed. But, it turned out, not entirely rebuffed: the continuing resolution that accompanied the reconciliation bill requires that the Agriculture Department purchase $10 million of sunflower oil this year.
That's the wrong way to make farm as well as fiscal policy. You want a leaner budget, and what you get instead is a honey-seed cake.