A choicer cut of pork

May 09, 2002

JUST TO BE clear about how outrageous the farm bill is: One of the biggest giveaways in American history is even bigger than anyone thought. In just the last week, its estimated cost has grown by $10 billion. It now amounts to a total of about $190 billion over the next decade -- most of it going to America's richest farmers. It's one of those big-get-bigger programs. The poorest 6 percent of farmers get less than 1 percent of subsidies.

But it's worse than that. No one really knows how much it will cost, because the subsidies in this bill are pegged to commodities prices, and as prices keep falling the subsidies keep going up. That's why the 10-year estimate increased -- but it's important to understand that it is still only an estimate. It could get a lot worse. The farm bill is little better than a blank check that will encourage wasteful -- and expensive -- overproduction.

The House of Representatives passed the bill last week, with a curious coalition of left-wing and right-wing members in opposition. The vast middle overcame them. The spectacle brought to mind the Russian parliament at its least edifying: All the members who mill about in the middle and don't really stand for anything are referred to collectively as "the Swamp." A lot of things go to die in the Swamp, but occasionally the Swamp spits out a monster of its own. The farm bill climbed out of the Swamp in the House last week, and did it again yesterday in the Senate.

The Senate vote was expected but disappointing, particularly with both of Maryland's senators in favor. Despite some good provisions on nutrition programs and land conservation (how can there not be something good in a bill of such breathtaking scope?) the overall impact is bad for the budget and bad for America's overworked farmland.

President Bush has said he will sign the bill, though it is a complete retreat from the Republican farm policy of the past six years. Some opponents hope that the rising cost estimates might give him pause. That brings to mind another Russian expression, which is that hope dies last.

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