Freedom to farm Key Senate bill: It would also free government from costly federal subsidy payments.

February 12, 1996

PRESIDENT CLINTON would be wise to approve farm legislation that reduces the government's role in agriculture and encourages farmers to grow what the global market demands. Such a bill, combined with food stamp, nutrition and conservation features dear to Democrats, has passed the Republican-controlled Senate with an encouraging show of bipartisan support. Too bad Maryland's two Democratic senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, once again voted for an unsatisfactory status quo.

Ever since the New Deal, when farm foreclosures and plummeting crop prices devastated a still largely rural population, agriculture policy has been based on government subsidies for farm income and government controls on farm production. This has developed into an entitlement program adding to federal deficits.

Although a revolution has occurred in American agriculture during the past 60 years, making it the nation's most profitable export sector and the cornucopia of an increasingly hungry world, farm legislation has not kept up with the pace of change. Periodic congressional rewrites have been mainly an exercise in horse-trading, with rural lawmakers fighting to assist the particular crops grown in their states. Sugar, peanut and dairy interests have kept unjustified price supports even in the new Senate bill.

Two factors have now combined to move the situation off dead center. One is the expiration of the existing farm bill, which leaves farmers in the dark as planting time approaches. The other is a Republican conservative movement determined to pass a "Freedom to Farm" bill. Together with a few urban liberals seizing opportunities to help their constituents, a bipartisan coalition has emerged in both the House and Senate that is evoking mixed signals from the White House.

In a compromise that reflects the art of the possible, the pending bill would give farmers $46 billion over the next seven years in guaranteed payments regardless of what they grow or how farm prices fluctuate in wheat, corn and other key crops. In return, subsidies would be phased out, producing estimated savings to the government of $13 billion a year.

To be sure, there are grounds for skepticism about what new goodies the farm lobby might obtain after 2002, especially if agricultural prices are dropping. But overall, the future depicted in the Senate bill is brighter than a future of endless controls and subsidies.

The House should accept Democratic amendments included in the Senate measure. And the president then should sign it.

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