The shape of the new farm legislation moving through Congress has become clear enough to suggest an inescapable conclusion: It won't solve many of the basic problems bedeviling the American agricultural economy.
Such new features as a conservation reserve to retire erodible land, a ban on federal benefits for farmers who abuse their land and a redirection of some federally funded research may provide some help. Aside from that, not much is new in the legislation.
But a larger point, in the eyes of some legislators and farm leaders, is that farmers and consumers may place undue emphasis on the farm bill as a palliative for problems such as oversupply, low prices and concentration of power and wealth in farming.
Part of the difficulty is that solutions to agriculture's problems lie in other areas, such as the federal tax code and monetary policy -- both beyond the reach of the Agriculture committees.
Rep. Edward R. Madigan of Illinois, ranking Republican member on the House Agriculture Committee, noted after the House completed action on its bill last week that it would only hold a safety net under farm income until "macroeconomic" factors affecting farming are dealt with in other venues.
"It's very frustrating to be so constrained, to not have an opportunity to deal with the other problems of agriculture because of Capitol Hill turf fights," said Rep. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), also a committee member. "Taxation, trade, the cost of money, banking and credit -- all of these need to be addressed."
Entertainer Willie Nelson inadvertently helped make a related point last month during a break in the Farm Aid concert he organized to help troubled farmers. Nelson told reporters that he understood the farmers' woes -- he lost $800,000 feeding cattle last year himself.
Farm economists increasingly agree that the tax code -- beyond the control of the farm-bill writers -- adversely affects legitimate farmers, increasing crop and livestock production by offering attractive writeoffs and tax-sheltering advantages to nonfarmers.
"It already has happened in poultry, and now the hog and cattle industries are moving toward incredible concentration because of the tax code," Daschle said. "I call the tax code the silent farm bill . . . . There has got to be a reason why a small farmer can't make it on $45 hogs and a big guy can. It is the large farmers' and the investors' unlimited ability to milk the tax code."
But in the farm bill, another part of the difficulty is the "institutional conservatism," as Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.) calls it, that makes acceptance of new legislative ideas difficult. He ran into it head-on with a modest proposal to target income-support subsidies to farmers most in need of help.
Glickman failed both in the Agriculture Committee and on the House floor to win support for targeting the subsidy payments. One of his arguments was that targeting would assure better use of federal money at a time of budget restraint.
"A subsidy is intended to keep those who are vulnerable alive," said Glickman, an Agriculture Committee member. "So targeting makes immense intellectual sense, as well as practical sense. But it wasn't easy to get institutional forces -- the committee, the farm groups -- to accept it, because it is new and because influential folks representing districts with larger farms didn't like it."
The Senate bill, which will reach the floor for debate in the next week or so, contains an income-subsidy targeting provision inserted only with great difficulty by Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.). Glickman predicted that some form of targeting would survive in the final bill and that "future farm bills will target as a fact of life."
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate committee, said he intends to resurrect another approach toward targeting benefits. Helms was overruled in committee, just as were House members who tried the same thing, when he proposed to lower from $50,000 to $25,000 the limit on direct subsidies to farmers.
Helms argues that only a relative handful of farmers -- many of them among the wealthiest in the country -- get more than $25,000 in the so-called deficiency payments and that such federal largess cannot be defended in the face of demands for less spending on farm programs. The subsidies, he and others contend, spur overproduction and help big farmers get bigger.
Helms also lost in committee in an attempt to channel federal agricultural research away from projects that mainly benefit large-scale farmers, but similar language pushed by Rep. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) survived in the House bill.
"I am trying to target research to viable family-farming operations, but the trouble lies in defining who is a family farmer," Roberts said. "The 1,000-acre family wheat farms in my district are a far cry from the family farms that politicians bleed and make speeches about . . . . They are talking about nice small farms supported by off-farm income. That's Walden Pond agriculture."
"Hopefully, we can concentrate on family farms so these people can have a chance to compete with the superfarms that will continue to make it, and that can make the investments necessary to keep pace," Roberts said.
Members like Daschle, however, worry that other parts of the farm bill will hasten the concentration of power in agriculture. To meet budget requirements, the House agreed to wipe out a $700 million farm ownership loan program that in the past has helped thousands of young, beginning farmers into business.
"We have provided an alarming nonresponse about who's going to go into farming," Daschle said. "The average age of our farmers is 52 years. What do we do about younger farmers? We are limiting entry into farming. This and the tax code are two of our major problems . . . and we're not getting at them."