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Down on the farm

Republicans in Congress tried back in the 1990s to wean America’s farmers from their 70-year federal subsidy and price-support habit. Farmers happily took the big handouts they were offered — swearing up and down they understood this was merely to cushion the blow of the coming “cold turkey” price-support withdrawal — and then marched right back to Washington in 2002 and successfully demanded that the whole mess be reinstated.

The reformers’ goal this year was much more modest. Under our expiring agricultural five-year plan, farmers who earn as much as $2.5 million per year are eligible for handouts. President Bush and his agriculture secretary want to limit payoffs to farmers who earn no more than $250,000.

In an attempt at “compromise,” the House version of the new farm bill reduces the threshold to $1 million. Thursday, in a year when the weather has been kind and no foreign armies have burned our fields — when, in short, there’s been no emergency to justify any federal meddling in the wheat and corn business, at all — the Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously reported out a five-year bill that would provide more than $280 billion in agriculture subsidies (that’s “billion” with a “b”) while imposing no income-based limits on what a person defined as a farmer can collect from the government, whatsoever.

None.

The legislation does attempt to limit subsidies with a provision that would eventually ban government payments to “non-farmers” whose income averages more than $750,000 a year. But the bill goes on to define “farmers” as those who make more than two-thirds of their income from agriculture.

The committee’s unwillingness to substantially reduce subsidies was highlighted when Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., offered an amendment to cut $1.7 billion from direct payments — subsidies that are often criticized because they’re not based on current crop production or prices. The amendment would have shifted that money to nutrition programs, including food stamps.

Members of the agriculture panel praised Sen. Lugar’s amendment, The Associated Press reported, then “swiftly defeated” it, 17-4.

The goal of the farm bill is to make sure food prices stay high for consumers by involving Washington in complex schemes to buy and store surplus produce or to pay farmers to destroy food (“undersized” fruit, for instance) or to simply grow less in the first place. It would be hard to imagine a weirder and more complex scheme, especially when one considers it’s designed to make sure the average voter and taxpayer pays more — not less — for his groceries.

Some radicals continue to press for weaning farmers off subsidies entirely. They point out the current “compromise” does not address demands from nations in the World Trade Organization for drastic cuts in U.S. subsidies — a conflict that led to the collapse of World Trade Organization talks last summer — and threats that a failure to make those real reforms could bring punitive tariffs on U.S. exports.

The current scheme “will do very little to make our agriculture policies more equitable, will not address the real challenges we face at the WTO, and it will not do anything to help our farmers produce for the market rather than for the government paycheck,” explains Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis.

Rep. Kind has written an alternative that would replace subsidies with government subsidized savings accounts. Farmers could use them to cover losses when crop prices are low or yields are poor.

This isn’t rocket science. Why should taxpayers be in the business of providing subsidies to corn growers or soybean farmers who make 20 times more than the average family?

The best solution to the pending expiration of the farm bill would be to let it expire and pop champagne corks — a national version of a mortgage-burning party.

But that will happen, of course, around the same time Nancy Pelosi enlists in the 2nd Marines and requests combat duty in Iraq.

The president has threatened a veto if subsidy caps aren’t strengthened. That’s a small enough bridge to fight for. But he should, at the very least, stick to his guns.

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