Chicago — US Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block is shouldering a large share of President Reagan's budget cuts. Yet he is confident the cuts won't hurt farmers or price-conscious consumers.
Of the $48.6 billion in cuts planned for the 1982 federal budget, $4.3 billion are to come from the US Department of Agriculture.
The USDA is accepting "very severe cuts," according to Mr. Block. Yet this successful Illinois grain and hog farmer says he believes the cuts will not affect vital US agricultural productivity. He sees no risk that cuts in federal support for farmers will drive food prices up in American supermarkets or reduce money-spinning US grain exports.
Block told the Monitor that "in the final budget that we have agreed upon with OMB [David A. Stockman's Office of Management and Budget], I am quite satisfied, and I think I have been able to hold the line where it was really important and accepted cuts where there was fat we need to cut."
Farm group spokesmen earlier warned that Block, suddenly elevated from being Illinois director of agriculture, might run into trouble in Washington because of his lack of experience at the federal level. They worried more when Block lost his battle to end the Soviet grain embargo, apparently outweighed by Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.
But following the March 10 release of the second round of Reagan budget cuts, the farm states seem convinced that Block has proved both his agricultural expertise and his political clout by trimming away fat without touching the muscle of American agriculture.
The USDA is targeted for a 15 percent budget cut, dropping from $28 billion to $23.7 billion for 1982. The bulk of this cut is to come from the food stamp program ($1.8 billion) and child nutrition programs (1.7 billion). Another $280 million is being cut from USDA administrative costs, and $103 million comes from various rural development programs. Only $482 million will directly affect farming operations, according to Bobby Barham, the USDA's assistant chief budget director.
On March 10, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Richard Lyng came under sharp attack from several Republican senators for the food stamp and nutrition program cutbacks. But Mr. Barham is convinced that this opening burst of "rhetoric" will fade.
"Congress is going to recognize that the American people said pretty strongly in the last election that they want something done about inflation to get the economy under control, and I think those who are still in congress will look around to see which of their colleagues didn't get back and why. So I think by and large the President is going to succeed in getting his programs through Congress," he explains.
Taking most of the USDA cuts from the food stamp and nutrition programs is fully ustified, Secretay Block explains, because "production agriculture is the basic building block for a strong national economy."
Block says that his department has been "working both sides of the fence in trying to cut out excesses wherever we can find them, and we found some on both sides of the ledger." The fact that most were found on the social-welfare side, rather than on the farming side, he feels, is simply proof the "agridulture does not get much in the way of subsidy. . . ."
Block accepts that many Americans depend on the USDA's various nutrition programs. But he insists that the major cuts must come in these areas rather than in programs affecting farming directly.
This administration is oriented toward putting the emphasis where I think it's going to be best for the nation," Block explains. "if you don't put priority No. 1 on agriculture and provide a climate for health and prosperity in the farming end of agriculture, nothing else can build upon that effectively.
"That's where it all starts. We have all kinds of programs that relate to the farming industry all the way out to the food programs that are feeding people, people who need food. but it all stars on the farm, even the school lunch. . . . It all starts back on a farm, and so that's where we have to have prosperity and strength."
This emphasis on the farmer doesn't neglect consumers, Block says, adding that "i think that consumer and farming interests are very much the same."
He objects to the popular image of a conflict between consumers and producers. Both groups will benefit, he promises, from the Reagan overall attack on inflation.
However, Block is cutting back sharply on dairy price supports "because these supports are encouraging too much production." He expects a fight over cuts in dairy supports and other direct support programs. But he is determined to get rid of any exceptions to the general rule that "agriculture just hasn't received that much subsidy, it is a mu ch freer industry than people like to think it is."