The current drought is posing a severe test not only for this nation's farmers, but also for Congress - which needs to treat this crisis with a greater sense of urgency.

Yes, the lawmakers are well aware of the seriousness of the problem and are on their way to formulating legislation to help deal with it. The trouble is that Congress seems unable to act as expeditiously as it should.If rain doesn't come to the central Corn Belt in three weeks or so, it will be too late to avoid the kind of drought damage already hitting the Grain Belt. Yet the word from Washington is that it likely will take weeks just to finish formulating a bill to provide income guarantees to drought-plagued farmers, then still more time to push it through Congress.

Clearly, this item needs to be put at or near the very top of Congress' agenda. And if the lawmakers' have to miss their usual summer vacation in order to deal with the drought, so be it.

Certainly it shouldn't be hard for Congress to find the money to help drought-ravaged farmers stay in business. As the drought worsens, eventually food prices are bound to increase. Because they can't plant or harvest, many farmers won't benefit from the higher prices. At the same time, by driving up the price of basic grains, the drought should reduce the price subsidies that the federal government ordinarily would pay. Much of the resulting savings can and should be diverted back to the farm belt in the form of disaster relief.

How much money is likely to be available from this source? Plenty! For every one-cent increase in the price of a bushel of corn, federal subsidy costs drop by more than $50 million. Wheat subsidies drop by $25 million for every penny increase in the market price. Because of the drought, wheat and corn prices could increase by as much as 50 cents per bushel.

While fast action is in order on such drought relief, Congress can proceed at a somewhat more leisurely pace in dealing with another aspect of the crisis just as long as it proceeds steadily and deliberately. We're referring to the holes that the drought has exposed in America's basic farm law, holes that Congress ought to examine carefully and strive to close.

For example, shortages of basic commodities brought on by the drought will be exacerbated by the idling of massive amounts of farmland as a surplus-reduction measure.

Likewise, the same law also subsidized the export of surplus crops at a cost of more than $1 billion over the past two years, drastically reducing a U.S. stockpile that Americans may come to need.

Meanwhile, the most pressing challenge is to speed the emergency relief needed to give farmers not only the cash but also the hope they need to hang on until after the drought subsides.