FOR THE SECOND year in a row, Congress has passed costly "emergency" farm legislation that mainly demonstrates the country's lack of a coherent farm policy. Most of the "emergency" to which the bill responds consists of bountiful harvests and low prices. The Republicans supposedly swore off compensating for those in the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act. Farmers would depend on the market for planting signals and income, not the government; that was the idea.
But the Republicans have been able to practice what they preach no more than the farm groups that so ardently advocate free enterprise on all but the days when the subsidy checks are due. The Republicans understandably fear that to stick to the limited subsidies of the Freedom to Farm Act would cost them votes; that's the real emergency the current bill is meant to cure.
The Democrats likewise leave supposed philosophy behind when this bill arises. The administration rightly complains that in a tight budget year the bill fails to target aid to the needy. You are asked to believe that, unlike the Republicans, the administration is opposed to subsidizing relatively prosperous farmers while cutting funds for worthy projects elsewhere in the budget. But the vice president led congressional Democrats in bidding up the price of the bill, and the president will sign it. The tradition of pursuing votes with public funds is solidly bipartisan.
The mistake of the Freedom to Farm Act was to go too far in the right direction. The Republicans were right that supports had become too generous and the government's role in planting decisions too large as it sought to limit its exposure by controlling production. Among much else, the combination cost the country exports. The act largely replaced what had been an open-ended system in which supports rose as prices fell with a system of fixed annual payments that were scheduled to decline over time.
For the first two years, the only losers in the new arrangement were the taxpayers. Prices and supports both were high. Then both declined, and Congress shifted into the present emergency mode. This year the emergency bill became a form of bazaar, in which members withheld needed votes until funds were added for all kinds of exotic purposes.
The right answer is probably less of a countercyclical system than used to exist, but more of one that exists today. The supports are not just a handout; it's in the interest of consumers no less than producers to stabilize supply and prices to a degree. The government could also usefully tie payments more to conservation and less to production. The environment and prices both would benefit from the idling of marginal land.
But Republicans resist the acknowledgment of error that would be implicit in a backing-away from the philosophy of Freedom to Farm. So countercyclical aid is being sloppily given by another name, as emergency aid, whose particular virtue is that under the budget rules it doesn't count. They can spend and seem not to have spent, all in the same stroke. There is talk in both the administration and Congress of finding another rubric--providing the aid through what would be called an insurance system. But no one has figured out how that might work. Next year is an election year, and the betting is that the country will suffer still another agricultural "emergency." The bidding war could make this year's look tame.