Block wants less government in farming, but his hands are tied

As soon as Congress thrashes out a compromise between House and Senate versions of the 1985 farm bill, the spotlight will shift to the White House. Will President Reagan sign expensive, jerry-built farm legislation? In an interview conducted before the Senate passed its farm bill this weekend, Agriculture Secretary John R. Block pondered Reagan's response. Here are his edited comments. Which bill is more palatable to the administration?

I don't think the House program is a very good program, frankly. It gets government too deeply involved in dairy. We're already deeper than we should be. So I think what we see out of the Senate [is] far better. Will the President sign a House-Senate compromise?

Policywise, I think it will be acceptable, because we'll have the cuts in dairy price supports that we need. I think we'll have lower loan rates [government-set prices that help to establish a floor under the market], more flexibility for farmers to grow on their acres what they'd like to grow rather than always fulfilling some base obligation that's called for in the farm bill. I'm not sure that it will be acceptable on the cost side. I think that's a big question mark right now. Won't the final bill be far less radical -- and far more costly -- than the administration's original proposal?

The farm bill we came out with early this year was too austere. I said that it was. But I ended up carrying that bill because I lost that one -- or lost part of it [when overruled in an inner-administration fight with the Office of Management and Budget]. I carried a bill to the Hill with great enthusiasm and, I think, courage. But they [Congress] threw it back in my face. We made some adjustments in that then. Any more squabbles with OMB?

Although at one time this year we were at odds -- not publicly, but we were -- today we're working together and we don't have any differences. And it does make life easier for a secretary of agriculture. How much of a change do you see coming in the level of farm supports?

If you look at those support lines, historically they've always gone up. We're talking about starting to gradually bring them down. But we're starting from such a high level of cost right now that it's still going to be tremendously expensive the next three years to support the farm program. Does this signal a change in your own views about getting government out of agriculture?

I still feel exactly the same way. At the same time, I'm realistic enough to realize that given the strain we're under today, the transition toward less government is going to have to be a gradual one. . . . When I went up for my confirmation hearing, I advocated then doing away with target prices immediately. Well, here we are now 41/2 years later, debating a farm bill -- another farm bill -- and there isn't a chance of getting rid of target prices or some kind of income supplement. Will farmers be helped by all this?

I think we see some signs on the horizon that could be encouraging for us. We've got the dollar down quite a bit. Interest rates have come down. They're going to come down some more. Finally, the Congress -- the country -- is starting to decide that these tremendous deficits in the budget cannot be tolerated. These mysterious macroeconomic issues are more important to farmers than the farm bill itself. And that's been one of my frustrations as a secretary of agriculture. Although I could manage the farm

bill, I can run the department of agriculture, I can try to help farmers through these tough times, it seems my hands are almost tied to deal with the most fundamental problems. How would you rate your performance?

If I do say so, I don't believe that any other [agriculture] secretaries have served under more difficult circumstances -- economic circumstances -- than I have. Without question my popularity has eroded, given the farm crisis that exists today. But I think I've held my own pretty well. Is it true you will be asked to leave after completing work on the farm bill?

I have never been in a stronger position than I am today. I know I have the confidence of the President. . . . I doubt if I stay the whole three-plus additional years. But that's a decision I can make later.

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