BAD IDEAS HAVE impressive staying power. So it is with the idea of imposing production controls on wheat and other crops now in surplus to prop up their prices. Market prices are low; the government supplements them. The grain ends up in government storage; the system costs billions of dollars a year.

Those who favor controls would break this mold by having the government allocate the market among farmers, limiting each one's share. To qualify for price and income supports, farmers already must agree to acreage set-asides. By limiting production these buoy market prices. Production controls, it is argued, would simply go much further in the same direction.

The idea is partly an exercise in nostalgia. In an effort to keep threatened farmers from going under, it would take agriculture back to an era of smaller producers. It involves a benign vision, not only of agriculture, but of government. It was beaten back in last year's farm bill on both philosophical and practical grounds -- that it would be futile and would take the government beyond its competence. The agriculture secretary would have to estimate demand, distribute production rights, perform all the functions of a market. Imagine a comparable proposal to have the labor secretary become distributor of jobs and wages in the shrunken steel and auto industries.

Congress voted instead for the opposite policy of withdrawal: slowly reducing price and income supports to make U.S. products simultaneously less attractive to produce and more attractive to buy. Rather than all farmers gearing down together, the idea was that some would be squeezed out while buyers were drawn in until a new balance was reached. All this was to happen gradually. Thus in this first year prices and profits continue to be low and government outlays high -- and there continue to be calls for controls.

For wheat, moreover, a vestige of the controls idea was left in the bill. The secretary was required to conduct a referendum on supports versus controls; ballots will go out this week. The poll is non-binding, but both sides are taking it seriously. Agriculture Secretary Richard Lyng has warned that "a majority vote in favor of mandatory controls could eventually tip the scales in Congress, or at least cause a return to last year's debate." He is urging farmers to vote no, fearful that "many might be fooled by the short-term lure of what may sound like higher wheat prices." He is right to do this. There is no instant or pleasant solution to the farm problem. Not even in an election year should farmers or policy makers be deluded into thinking so.