Farm spending will make it tough to balance US budget. Congress, eyeing elections ahead, feels public sentiment for farmers
Washington — Congress, now engaged in a showdown over a measure to balance budgets in the future, is also working on a farm bill that threatens to bust the current year's budget. On one hand, Senate Republicans are insisting on a measure to require a balanced budget by 1991 as the price for allowing the federal government to borrow more money. Unless the debt ceiling is raised soon, some government functions are threatened with a temporary halt.
But some of the same lawmakers who are pushing for future balanced budgets are backing a farm program that will add to federal red ink.
``Farmers have already taken some budget reductions,'' says Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) of Iowa, who finds no contradiction in backing price supports for farmers as well as the balanced-budget effort.
``Everybody looks in a wrongheaded way'' at deficits, says Sen. Mark Andrews (R) of North Dakota. ``If we fail to respond to farmers,'' he adds, exports will drop and thousands of Americans will lose jobs in related industries.
Both Republican senators come from states where farmers are facing the worst conditions since the 1930s. (See related article on farm credit, Page 8.) Both senators are also running for reelection next year.
It is on Capitol Hill that, despite deficit worries, concern about an ailing farm economy prevails.
Neither the House nor Senate version of the farm bill makes the $12 billion in savings sought under the current budget, which calls for a total of $38.8 billion for the farm program over three years. The House version, headed for passage late yesterday, would save an estimated $8 billion, but the Senate bill, still awaiting action, is estimated to save only $4 billion.
Meanwhile, good weather and bumper crops have meant more bad news for the budget. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that the cost of crop supports for 1985 could be higher by $8 billion than projected early this year.
Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California, a member of the House Budget Committee, acknowledges worry about deficits. ``We flinch and then we go out and work on the farm bill,'' he says.
Representative Fazio and others argue the farm program will be restrained in spite of the hard times in the agricultural community. ``We would have spent another $10 billion,'' he says, without the budget pressure.
During most of the voting in the House, the farm community found overwhelming support, despite the fact that farmers are only about 3 percent of the population. For example, House-backed price supports for both dairy and sugar won by a wide margin over Reagan administration objections.
Those votes were based not so much on substance but ``on a general feeling that farmers are in a desperate situation,'' says Rep. Byron L. Dorgan (D) of North Dakota.
``I think the American people are basically sentimental about their farmers,'' says John F. Lewis, a spokesman for the American Federation of Farm Bureaus. ``How's a congressman supposed to vote? He's got to have a heart.''
Ironically, Reagan administration proposals for drastic cutbacks may have helped the move to continue substantial federal support for farmers. ``They just have not appeared sensitive about farm issues and farm problems, so they've been largely ignored,'' says a House GOP leadership aide.
Many farm-state Republicans oppose the President. ``Everybody [in the farm belt] sees this administration as uncaring,'' says Senator Grassley. The Reagan administration is ``in the ideological lock step of the political right [in proposing] that there ought to be less governmental involvement in the economy,'' says the Iowa senator. ``The President might just be biting off more than he can chew'' if he vetoes the farm bill.
The final House-Senate compromise bill is expected to authorize a moderate farm program that would offer no dramatic cures for farm ills. Several participants in the debate have called it ``steady as you go'' legislation.
``This legislation is not a panacea,'' Rep. E. (Kika) de la Garza (D) of Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told his colleagues. He says the aim is to ``stabilize'' the farm situation.
Martin E. Abel, a Washington farm economist and consultant, agrees with that assessment. ``Congress can't legislate prosperty for American agriculture,'' he says. ``What Congress is trying to do is try to keep it from getting much worse.''
Representative Fazio, whose California district has a big agricultural sector, concedes, ``We're intellectually bankrupt in a bipartisan sense on this subject.''
If anyone argues the farm program will resolve the farm problems, ``that's demagogic,'' says Grassley.