Congress gets an earful from farmers back home. Plans to hold the line on credit and subsidies trigger growing anger, as planting time nears
Washington — Congress returns today after hearing an earful from increasingly angry and organized farmers. Just as the Reagan administration begins a campaign to clamp down on farm subsidies, lawmakers in the farm belt spent a week-long break going from one crowded ``farm crisis'' meeting to the next, generally hearing the same messages:
About 25 percent of the Midwestern farmers have such severe credit problems that unless the federal government can offer major credit assistance by March 1 or March 15 for the spring planting, many will be forced to leave their farms.
Although farmers admit that the $12.5 billion federal price support system has been a disaster, many say pulling out the props now would be worse.
With shrinking numbers that now equal only 3 percent of the nation's population, farmers face a major test of their political clout.
``Our only hope is if we can show such overwhelming support'' that the Reagan administration will have to change its course, says Rep. Thomas A. Daschle (D) of South Dakota, who last week spoke at a farm rally of 5,000 people in the state capital, Pierre.
The unrest that lawmakers found back home is beginning to unify the normally independent farmers. ``These people are going to start to tighten the noose on Washington,'' says Rep. Byron L. Dorgan (D) of North Dakota, who attended nine farm meetings in four days and found that in areas where only about 200 had attended past meetings, as many as 700 appeared last week.
The South Dakota Legislature has voted to send all 105 of its members to Washington next week to dramatize the problems of their state, where agriculture is the No. 1 industry. And farmers are planning their biggest rally yet, a hoped-for gathering of 100,000 on Feb. 27 in Ames, Iowa.
If such protests are putting farmers on the covers of news magazines and offering at least the comfort of a listening public ear, government remedies face stiff opposition.
David Stockman, director of the Reagan administration's Office of Management and Budget, continued to outrage farmers last week by charging that there are ``too many'' producers. There will be no big ``agriculture credit rescue,'' he told a breakfast meeting of reporters.
The threatened family farm is a mere ``sociological concept,'' he charged, elaborating on earlier charges that farmers are in trouble because they made poor management decisions.
Such remarks have made him the villian of the farm belt, where farmers say government policies are to blame for many of their ills and add that often the most efficient farm operations are threatened.
``A reaction is building that is very, very deep,'' says Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa, who calls the words of Mr. Stockman and recent pronouncements by Agriculture Secretary John Block ``callous and insensitive.''
Representative Leach is pushing for a big credit program, instead of the Reagan administration's offer of $650 million in loan guarantees, which Leach says are ``actually a wave in the ocean'' when compared with a total farm debt of $220 billion.
South Dakota's Daschle and Nebraska Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D) are leading the effort to expand the loan program to $3 billion. House approval could be speedy, since the Democratic leadership has given the proposal a nod.
But in the GOP Senate, the proposal faces a tough fight. Senator Zorinsky plans to attach his farm credit proposal to a supplemental spending bill for aid to Ethiopia, which is scheduled for fast action in the upper chamber.
But Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of the farm state of Kansas has so far stood on the sidelines on the credit bailout issue. During a recent visit to Topeka, Senator Dole listened for more than an hour as a delegation of farmers told of their troubles. He nodded understandingly but made no promises.
While Congress struggles over proposals, the ``quicker solution to the problem is to address it administratively,'' says Jack Cassidy, an aide to Zorinsky. The Reagan administration has authority to give much greater credit assistance, Mr. Cassidy says.
But the Democratic aide adds that if the Reagan administration can ``hold things off for six or seven weeks, they can say, `The planting season is over. Those who didn't get credit don't need it.' ''
``I think you 're going to see another change in their credit package,'' says Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas, whose own 2,500-acre farm lost about $30,000 last year. The conservative Democrat agrees that farm subsidies must be reduced. But, he says, ``it's going to take more time and a different formula to get there.''
Following the immediate credit crisis, Congress will still be faced with the farm program decisions on crop price supports. Members from both parties concede that they expect reductions or a freeze at best.
Rep. Lynn Martin (R) of Illinois, who has been meeting with farm constituents, says she is warning them that ``if we do more'' for credit, ``there's a trade-off in other forms of farm payments.''
She also says that even if there is aid, ``that doesn't mean you save every farmer.''