Election years are good for farmers in the US.

May 26th, 2000

Election years are good for farmers in the US.

Does anybody remember when, in the early years of the Clinton administration, Congress all but eliminated farm subsidies that in some years had come to exceed $25 billion? At the time, everyone except farmers thought it proper.

Forget all that.

Negotiators reconciling House and Senate legislation this week approved $15 billion worth of farm assistance, including add-on relief from low commodity prices.

Oil and gas producers, who in 1997 and 1998 had commodity-price problems of their own, can only watch with envy.

The farm aid includes $5.5 billion in direct payments to grain and cotton growers, due for delivery a little over a month before the general election this fall.

Then there is $8.2 billion to cut premiums on federally subsidized crop insurance during 5 years. And there's $1.6 billion for special commodities such as soybeans, peanuts, and tobacco.

It's the third straight year of hefty aid packages aimed at helping farmers weather price slumps and other problems-and, of course, at securing their votes.

Farmers, most of them anyway, are good, hard-working people who contribute importantly to the economy and who face hardships like anyone else. There's nothing, in principle, wrong with helping them through difficult periods. And a strong argument can be made that the assistance benefits all taxpayers by preserving vital activities and future tax payments when prices are low or the weather's bad.

Exactly the same things can be said about oil and gas producers, too, however. Yet any suggestion that taxpayers in 1998, when oil and gas prices were ruinously low, should have ponied up $5.5 billion for producers would have been laughed out of Washington, DC.

What's more, the political obeisance done to farmers and farm-state interests doesn't end with direct cash purchases of votes. Ethanol stands at the trough as well.

Ethanol's goodies come from the Environmental Protection Agency.

First came the proposal that reformulated gasoline freed from the need to contain oxygen meet renewable-source parameters that amount to an ethanol mandate. EPA tried once before to set a renewable minimum for gasoline but was stopped by a court decision.

More recently came EPA's proposal to slash the sulfur concentration of diesel fuel, which won the immediate endorsement of the Renewable Fuels Association.

"The ethanol industry supports the EPA's move to reduce emissions from diesel engines, and we have a flexible alternative that can help meet the goals - oxygenated diesel," said RFA Pres. Eric Vaughn.

Refiners, meanwhile, are warning of plant closures and product shortages because of the EPA proposal on sulfur in diesel, one in a series of maximum-intensity regulatory initiatives by the agency.

Refiners, too, are hard-working folks who contribute importantly to the economy. Like producers, they can only marvel at the political favoritism extended to farmers, often at the oil industry's expense.

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