COULD THE farm bill be an omen? The House and Senate agriculture committees are notorious for resisting and faking budget cuts. This year the wily committee members, after a few false starts, are behaving like choir boys instead. They have bowed to the budget resolution and peaceably agreed four weeks before Election Day to cut the cost of future farm supports by a fourth.
The fear had been that if indulgent committees such as agriculture began to turn in phony cuts, the resolution would unravel. It has happened before. But:
1) Most support payments are based on target prices, which the farm-bill conferees could not quite bring themselves to cut either directly or right away. But beginning in the mind-1990s they would achieve a similar result by changing the way payments are calculated to reduce the targets' value.
2) They voted for substantial reductions over five years in the acreage on which support payments will be made.
3) They should have restored a provision in current law automatically reducing milk supports when production is too high. Instead, the new law will have a five-year price floor, and if that elicits too much milk, farmers will be assessed to defray the cost of buying up the surplus. The bill will now reportedly include a second assessment to reduce costs further.
4) Sugar, tobacco and peanut farmers will also be assessed, in effect made to rent the production and import controls that the government maintains for them to prop up their prices. It's a good idea, but the token assessments are too small.
The conferees did not abandon their old habits entirely. In wheat and feed grains they persuaded the administration to count as a cut next year what is really just an extension and not a tightening of current law. That favorable ruling meant that more of the real cutting could be deferred until fiscal 1992 -- but then it will be substantial.
Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees have reported out major cuts in Medicare (no not as large as earlier proposed; the elderly will not be called upon to make as large a contribution). A grudging agreement seems to have been reached among the two houses and the administration on defense cuts together with spending ceilings on the broad range of domestic programs subject to the annual appropriations process. Many tax provisions before the two houses are also the same or similar, though on taxes, of course, there remains the familiar sharp conflict that could break up the effort.
But what if, never prettily, of course, but within days of the election, on the lip of a recession and despite the handicap of divided government, they were to pull it off? They could, you know -- but then, they could also have done it $1 trillion or so in debt ago, when it would have been a lot easier, and everyone would have been better off.