U.S. FARM supports were too high for anyone's good in the mid-1980s. In the last five years they have already been appreciably and constructively reduced. Now the Bush administration wants to reduce them further as part of a reduction in world supports generally. Yet presumably its goal is not to eliminate supports entirely; a safety net and reserve program of some kind remain necessary for consumers' sake as well as producers'. The question is, where is the stopping point? What should the next generation of farm programs look like, if not like what exists today? On that there is no agreement.

It is in that context that the 1985 farm bill is expiring and Congress is having to write a new one this year. Left to themselves, the agriculture committees would like supports to go up in an election year. Trade policy and, closer to home, the budget summit could both force them down instead. The committees, after some early bluster for the folks back home, have basically settled on a policy of holding on to what they have. Most supports would be frozen; over the five-year life of the bill, this would mean they would continue to decline in real terms.

Critics of the programs are playing mainly around the edges. The blatantly protectionist sugar program, the semi-feudal peanut program, the vestigial honey program -- those are among their targets. All three richly deserve to be revised if not expunged, but they are peripheral to the grain supports on which farm and food policy mainly depend. There the proposals will be aimed at excess; instead of the largest payments to the largest and presumably least needy farmers, the amenders would either limit payments per farmer or confine supports to smaller producers, somehow defined.

That's an old and popular idea, except that farm supports are not just meant to assuage need in the farm belt. It's fine to say these programs should cost less; they should. But the president and Congress also need to take the harder next step of figuring out just what levels of food supply and price they want these programs to provide.