Farm fight on the Hill Republicans vs. Republicans: Leadership intent on reform obstructed by subsidy defenders


COTTON. PEANUTS. SUGAR. Among Southern legislators who traditionally represent a strong regional interest on congressional agriculture committees, these crops are inviolable. Federal subsidies dating back to the Great Depression are considered sacrosanct. Politicians may inveigh against big government and huge deficits, but when it comes to protecting the interests of farm folks back home, everything gives way. Parochialism transcends ideology.

It has always been thus, and thus it is this year even as Congress scratches and scrambles to meet a budget resolution target ordering a cut of $13.6 billion in farm programs. The House Agriculture Committee has been so torn between Republican factions -- between those intent on radical reform and those who stand pat behind traditional subsidies -- that the whole issue may be shoved into the lap of the House Budget Committee. The Senate Agriculture Committee pared down subsidies for peanuts and sugar only because one of its GOP members, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, threatened to vote with the Democrats unless key ingredients used by the Hershey (Pa.) chocolate company were nudged down in price.

For millions of city dwellers and suburbanites, farm legislation has long been a yawn. Not so much this year. Sen. Richard Lugar has made reductions in farm subsidies a key proposal in his run for the GOP presidential nomination. Deficit hawks among House Republicans chafe at subsidies that interfere with the free play of market forces. But with only weeks left to forge a compromise essential to the whole budget-cutting package, cotton, peanut and sugar lawmakers predictably will exact a high price for their cooperation.

Farm legislation never seems to catch up with technology, population shift and the real-life economics of agriculture. Nevertheless, the Republican leadership deserves credit for trying to inject some logic into the crazy-quilt of federal farm controls and subsidies. Unfortunately, Democrats loyal to outmoded party tradition are too much inclined to team up with any GOP obstructionists who come along.

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