THE FARM bills now on the House and Senate floors will produce no great change in U.S. farm and food policy. For all the effort that went into writing them, they have turned out to be basically extensions of current law. The amendments being proposed, despite the publicity surrounding some of them, would change the law only on the margin.
The major efforts to amend have involved the minor programs; their targets have been the supports for sugar, peanuts, wool and honey. These relics ought to be cleaned out, but even if they are -- and the sugar program, largest of them, once again withstood reformers in both houses yesterday -- the basic programs and costs for the staples of grain, milk and cotton will remain.
The administration says that in both bills the basic programs would bust the budget. That isn't clear. Both agriculture committees began the drafting process by considering increases in supports, hardly a surprise in an election year, but ended up settling mainly for freezes. The assumption is that, under the influence of the budget process and perhaps the current world trade talks, even these will not last and will next be converted into modest cuts.
Both bills do contain important structural defects (which none of the leading amendments would address). The expiring dairy program is neatly balanced. In years when a shortage is expected, supports are automatically increased; when excess production is thought likely, they are reduced. This incentive system has worked remarkably well, yet under the influence of the dairy lobby the bills would upset it so that supports could only stay even or go up; if that elicited too much milk, the government would have to indulge in unwieldy marketing controls. That's too high a price to pay for a higher price.
The new soybean programs in both bills are also too generous and poorly designed as well. Under a so-called marketing loan, U.S. production would be simultaneously subsidized and dumped on the world market. This is a predatory approach that contradicts U.S. trade policy and ought to be stricken. Yet it already exists for cotton and rice; the Senate bill would extend it in less threatening form to wheat and feed grains, and no one in either house is seriously objecting.
Instead the reformers are concentrating on what is called "targeting," tightening the mostly paper limits in current law on payments to larger or wealthier farmers. Payment caps have obvious appeal, and none of the current proposals would do obvious harm, but our sense is that the showy amendments have not been thought through. The support programs are meant not just to help needy farmers survive hard times but to stabilize food supplies and prices. It's fine as a budgetary matter to say that farmers, or some of them, are getting too much -- we would agree -- but what should U.S. farm policy be? In the arguments over fiscal policy and fairness, that answer gets lost.