CONGRESS IS busy "reconciling" its tax and spending plans, a process that used to be aimed at controlling the budget deficit. Since 2001, however, reconciliation has become a way of ramming tax cuts past potential opponents, widening the deficit rather than narrowing it. This year, for example, the aim is to cut taxes by $70 billion while offsetting only about half of that with spending cuts. But wait, the news is worse than that. Some of the spending "cuts" turn out, on closer inspection, to involve large new commitments to the federal government's worst programs -- such as its subsidies for farms.
The new farm commitment is tucked into the spending cuts proposed by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Mr. Chambliss was told to come up with $3 billion in spending cuts over five years. This shouldn't have been difficult, because taxpayers spend $15 billion to $20 billion each year on wasteful farm subsidies, most of which go to a small minority of wealthy growers while penalizing developing countries that aspire to export their way out of poverty. President Bush has rightly called for a complete elimination of these subsidies, and his administration has proposed a way of saving $5.7 billion over 10 years. The suggested cuts would hardly be too painful: One of them involves capping the subsidy available to each farmer at $250,000 per year.
Mr. Chambliss nonetheless appears to have struggled with his task. Yesterday he proposed to cut a mere $1.1 billion in farm subsidies over five years, to be supplemented with cuts in conservation programs and food stamps. His plan says nothing about capping subsidies to the richest farmers; thus 300,000 lucky recipients will continue to divvy up about $10 billion a year. But the Chambliss proposal does include language that would extend farm subsidies beyond 2007, when they are currently due to expire, for a further four years. That would puncture the hope of using the 2007 expiration as an opportunity to replace the subsidies with measures that could be cheaper, less damaging to trade and better for the environment.
Using a measure that is ostensibly about spending restraint to extend the egregious farm program would mark a new low for Congress. The Agriculture Committee is due to vote on the Chambliss proposal today. It should reject it.