THE $3.1 BILLION drought relief for farmers passed by the Senate last week isn't the most lavish bailout ever handed to the nation's farmers, but it's one of the more outrageous. The debate on this measure was a competition between Republicans, who wanted to give too much ($3 billion), and Democrats, who wanted to give too much ($6 billion). This is admittedly a tiny sliver of the $390 billion spending bill that the Senate has just belatedly passed, but it is illustrative of broader problems with the way we pay America's farmers -- and the way Congress spends taxpayers' money.

In the course of the Senate debate, no one mentioned that just last year Congress had passed, and the supposedly tightfisted president had signed, a farm bill whose bloated cost of $190 billion over the next 10 years was justified in part by the claim that it would end the expensive, essentially institutionalized cycle of annual "emergency" payments to farmers. It didn't take long for that to unravel.

Many farmers are suffering from a drought that in some places is the worst since the Dust Bowl. But legislators could have foreseen and provided for this kind of weather-related emergency in their original farm bill. Instead, they already have ladled out an additional $5.2 billion in crop insurance and other emergency aid -- and now return with this reckless measure that will dole out more even to farmers who have suffered no losses. Growers will be eligible for assistance as long as they live in a county that's been declared a disaster, something that could cover as many as 97 percent of the nation's farmers. Proponents argue that this broad-brush approach will get payments more quickly to the truly needy farmers, but that doesn't seem like the kind of careful husbanding of government resources the public might expect in times of ballooning deficits. The Senate measure -- as part of a bid to attract the votes of Southern senators -- also lavishes as much as $53 million on tobacco growers, $50 million on the cotton seed industry and $10 million on farmers along the Rio Grande, none of it conditioned on a showing that they were victims of a natural disaster. Catfish growers get to partake in the $250 million extra for livestock assistance. Now that's compassionate. Perhaps as the spending bill moves into a conference with the House, lawmakers will get a little more sensible.