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DOWN ON THE FARM: Embarrassed by reports of wealthy individuals collecting millions in crop subsidies from the government, some farm-state senators are trying to limit payments to $275,000 per farmer per year. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley--who, along with North Dakota's Byron Dorgan, is sponsoring the cap--has argued that "[c]apping farm payments will restore integrity to farm programs." Actually, no: The entire idea of the government singling out people in a certain line of work for preferential treatment violates any notion of market logic or even common sense. All the new subsidy cap would do is lop off $1.3 billion over ten years from a $174 billion program that, by right, shouldn't exist at all. But that's not the worst of it: Due to the opposition of many in Congress, even this tiny reform may be killed. It turns out that a disproportionate number of Southern farmers have benefited from particularly outrageous payments--Tyler Farms of Arkansas, for instance, has received $38 million from Uncle Sam over the last five years--and their legislators intend to make sure they keep on benefiting. "This is nothing less than war on Southern farmers," raged Arkansas Senator Tim Hutchinson. "Do you know what this farm bill says to the South?" asked Georgia Senator Zell Miller. "`Hold still, little catfish. All I'm going to do is just gut you.'" Miller, of course, made a name for himself as the first Democratic senator to endorse President Bush's tax cut, saying at the time that "if we don't send this overpayment of taxes back to those who paid it, most of it will just be frittered away." He forgot to mention that, even if we did, the money would still be frittered away, and that he would be one of the chief fritterers.

AMERICAN GRANDSTAND: It takes special people to prompt feelings of sympathy for Ken Lay, but the members of the Senate Commerce Committee, it turns out, are pretty darn special. When the disgraced former Enron CEO appeared before the committee this week and, as expected, took the Fifth Amendment, the 21 senators practically crawled over one another to pummel Lay--a man whom, not so long ago, most of them were crawling over one another to ask for campaign contributions. "Mr. Lay, I've concluded that you're perhaps the most accomplished confidence man since Charles Ponzi," blustered Illinois Republican Peter Fitzgerald, who took $1,038 in campaign contributions from the confidence man's company. "[I]t's just not possible to determine why the Enron ship is at the bottom of the ocean unless you hear from the captain," thundered Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, who took $4, 000 while the ship was still sailing. "[I]t is, I think, deplorable, one, that either you didn't know what was going on, or two, that if you did know what was going on, how did you think that you could get away with it? It seems so obvious to anybody who looks at it that this was a pyramid scheme that was doomed to fail," said Nevada Senator John Ensign, who evidently missed those obvious signs while pocketing $7,500 from the company. "Clearly the chief officers of Enron failed in their duty and shamefully breached that trust," Virginia Republican George Allen ($3,500) lectured Lay, "and it's a responsibility you will bear, maybe not in this committee, but in your conscience and, I know, when you go to sleep every night...." "There's no better example than `Kenny Boy' [of] cash-and-carry government," fumed South Carolina Democrat Fritz Hollings--who should know, given that he has cashed and carried $3,500 in Enron checks. One might imagine that in the course of their interminable fulminations, at least one of Lay's inquisitors would have acknowledged that he or she benefited from Enron's largesse. But apparently such petty disclosures are beneath the dignity of U.S. senators.

NEGOTIATIONS BREAK DOWN YET AGAIN: "Yasser Arafat and his West Bank security chief got into such an angry argument yesterday about the Palestinian uprising that the PLO chairman drew his pistol, sources said. In a scene out of a Wild West movie, bodyguards of both men also pulled out firearms before security chief Jibril Rajoub was dragged out of Arafat's headquarters, the Palestinian sources said." -- New York Post, February 13

TOTAL RECALL: The Pentagon's new Information Awareness Office (IAO) harks back to those Strangelovean intelligence agencies of yore with deliberately ambiguous names and broad, mysterious ambits. IAO is charged with organizing databases to catalog information gleaned from the government's ever-expanding array of surveillance systems--the kind of top secret work you'd think would be restricted to officials who are above ethical reproach. Apparently not. After sorting through resumes, the brains at the Department of Defense decided this week that the person to run the new operation would be Admiral John M. Poindexter. A quick refresher for those lucky enough to have forgotten: During his one-year tenure as Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, Poindexter landed in a bit of trouble for his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal and ensuing cover-up. According to the testimony of his underling Oliver North, Poindexter tore up a document signed by Reagan authorizing the sordid arms-for- hostages deal. Prosecutors found that, in his letters and meetings with congressional investigators, Poindexter fibbed left and right about his involvement. In 1990 a federal district court judge found him guilty of five counts of deceiving Congress. (The conviction was later overturned because he'd provided his testimony under an immunity agreement.) Even if the war on terrorism justifies the creation of this creepy new surveillance entity, it's hard to imagine that the Pentagon couldn't have entrusted its management to someone with a record of honesty. It hardly inspires confidence that the man now in charge of "information awareness" is best known for his cover-ups.

BETTER FIND A CLEVER GENTILE TO LOOK IT UP: "We're going to talk to the foundation members and determine exactly why the commentary's there and whether there is research to support it."  --Jim Konantz, a Los Angeles school district official, explaining last week's decision to halt distribution of 300 donated copies of The Meaning of the Holy Quran, which describes Jews as illiterates who reject knowledge

SORT OF: "In some ways it's sort of the extreme of what American parents want their children to do ... travel the world." --First Lady Laura Bush on John Walker Lindh's journey from Bay Area teen to Taliban fighter, The San Francisco Chronicle, February 13

DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS: In Siddhartha Mukherjee's "Fighting Chance" (January 21), Franklin Roosevelt was described as participating in a debate over applied science "in the immediate aftermath" of World War II. In fact, the debate took place toward the end of the war, not after it; FDR, of course, died before the war's conclusion. We regret the error.

DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS II: Peter Beinart's TRB "Social Disease" (January 21) incorrectly stated that "millions" of South Africans "have ... died" of AIDS. In fact, while millions of South Africans have been infected and are living with the HIV virus, there is no evidence that millions have died. We regret the error.