When Congress passed Freedom to Farm in 1996, one of the selling points was that lawmakers knew exactly how much they would spend on agriculture for the next seven years.

Someone forgot to tell Congress that the weather doesn't always cooperate with its decrees, and spending on agriculture has far outstripped expectations. (The $25.6 billion in emergency assistance since 1998 is nearly twice the amount projected for total spending in the 1996 farm bill.)

The high costs were one of the reasons cited when Rep. Larry Combest, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said he would probably begin writing a new farm bill next year rather than in 2002.

"Something is broken because we've had to put in $25 billion over the last three years," he said. "The point is we need to look at why we have such depressed low prices... and how we can help farmers get through this."

The comments came a few weeks after the committee's ranking minority member, Rep. Charles Stenholm, said he would attempt to write a new farm bill in 2001 if Democrats won control of the House on Nov. 7, making him the committee's chairman.

Occurring just days before the election, Combest's statements appeared timed to deflect growing criticism of Freedom to Farm by Democrats. Although most observers think Republicans will retain control of the Senate, the battle for the House appeared to be as close as the presidential contest.

Combest, whose district adjoins Stenholm's in west Texas, quibbled with reporters over whether he was reopening the farm bill.

"There's always this question," he said. "If you make a change in an area that is deficient and make it better; if people want to call that reopening the farm bill, that's fine. I don't care what they call it.

"But, that's what my goal is. Next year, I would like to see us deal with the problem rather than sitting around and waiting."

The chairman said he does not believe the committee will completely overhaul Freedom to Farm, which Republicans initially touted as removing the government from agriculture.

"A lot of people suggest you deal with loan rate issues or go back to set-asides, which doesn't fly in the eyes of people who want to keep the flexibility of the current farm programs," he said. "Others want to discuss loan deficiency payments, or flexible fallow or conservation payments. All of these will be thrown out on the table."

The House Agriculture Committee held a round of field hearings on new farm legislation last spring. But, Combest said, he did not hear a consensus on what the committee should do. So, he is considering another series of hearings.

"If you or your group wants to talk about loan rates, don't just say you ought to raise the loan rates," Combest noted. "Tell us how much to raise them, and then how you would deal with the payment limit question when marketing loan gains begin topping $75,000 per person.

"If you don't have specific proposals, we don't have time to listen. We want to do this right, but we want to do it quickly."