THE SENATE has produced a pretty good farm bill. It would lower supports so that farmers would derive more of their income from the market and less from government over the next several years. Some farmers who are already hurting would hurt more; some could lose their farms. In a time of low prices and overproduction, there is no ready way to avoid such results. The senators put padding in the bill -- too much in some cases -- to make the shakeout as gentle as they could.
The bill owes most to Majority Leader Bob Dole. The central issue in the debate was the proper path for deficiency payments, the income supplements given farmers when market prices are too low. Democrats and farm-state Republicans wanted to freeze these over the four-year life of the bill, saying anything less would wipe out family farmers and possibly bring down the farm credit system. The administration said a freeze would cost too much and urged that the payment levels be stepped down. The argument was partisan; Republicans accused Democrats of trying to prompt a veto to help regain control of the Senate next year. Of 34 seats at stake, 22 are now Republican, more than half in farming states.
Mr. Dole, who has been mediating all year between the president and the Democrats, proposed a series of compromises, including one that would have frozen payment levels for both four years and one; the Senate would simply have sent the unsettled issue to conference. In the end a two-year freeze was agreed to.
In the conference committee:
*There should be no trouble over price supports; both houses have voted to reduce them. A Senate wheat provision that would let farmers opt for higher supports in return for reduced protion should be dropped. Both bills would also pay farmers to idle erodible land. The best idea of the year, this would both save soil and cut production.
*The House dairy provision, an egregious gift from the Democrats to the dairy industry, should be set aside and the Senate provisions adopted. In a time of oversupply, the House bill would raise supports while shifting costs from the government to consumers; the Senate bill would sensibly lower supports to discourage production, though only after one year.
*Deficiency payments, where the most dollars are at stake, are likely to be the most difficult item. The House voted in effect to freeze them for the life of its bill -- that's too large a subsidy, sustained too long. The Senate bill is preferable, though it would have been better somehow to funnel these payments only to farmers in need.
The farm bill, whatever its terms, will not solve the farm problem. That depends on such factors as the weather over the next few years, world food demand and exchange rates. No farm bill can compete with these. And as Mr. Dole wryly reminded his colleagues: "we need to understand that no one has a corner on wisdom when it comes to agricultural legislation. I think everyone here has demonstrated that over the years."