THIS IS a Congress that began with lofty discussions of saving Social Security, modernizing Medicare, etc. But all legislatures come back to the fundamentals in the end. Among the few issues that remained as the two chambers were completing their work--right up there with U.N. dues and Third World debt relief--was milk price supports.

Somewhere in the final mega-bills will be provisions allowing New England to maintain a dairy compact that keeps milk prices artificially high, and abandoning a modest reform that Congress itself virtuously ordered a few years ago reducing such supports elsewhere in the country. These provisions are brought to you by people who in other contexts present themselves as foes of government regulation. But they like it well enough when it produces what they want--extorting higher prices for milk, for example.

In the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996, while reducing supports for other crops, Congress called for a study of the milk marketing order system, which props up prices at the checkout counter. The study produced a recommendation that the system be preserved but eased. Even that seems too much for the milk folks in Congress. Though the issue was still in play, it appeared last night they would succeed in keeping the old system intact. It's just like the emergency aid they've doled out to producers of other crops in the past two years, repealing by another name the reduced supports in Freedom to Farm. Meanwhile, the New England compact, which was due to expire, will be allowed to remain in effect for two more years.

The result will be to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from consumers to inefficient producers who couldn't otherwise compete. By definition, most of the benefit will go to larger producers. The impact will be disproportionately felt by lower-income consumers. It will be evident inside government feeding programs as well, including that for low-income women, infants and children; the available dollars will buy less. It's a fitting testament to the instincts of a Congress that, from the standpoint of the public interest, can't go home soon enough.