Reagan farm bill gets cold shoulder from US farmers
Houston — The cold of a Midwestern winter is being matched by farm belt response to President Reagan's four-year farm bill. ''The farm bill at its best is disaster as far as farmers are concerned,'' says Kansas wheat farmer Douglas Wildin. ''It really upsets me to hear the administration argue that $3 billion a year for agriculture will wreck the President's economic recovery program when $200 billion for defense won't.''
Farmers, congressmen, and the administration agree that the stalled 1981 four-year farm bill is coming at a bad time. Federal budget cuts are squeezing farm support programs dry as record harvests chop prices paid to farmers for their crops. With net farm income forecast at $16 billion to $19 billion - compared with 1979's $27 billion - no one wants to take responsibility for further cuts in support programs.
Yet Dec. 15, 10 weeks past deadline, a bare-bones farm bill is expected to squeak through Congress and finally be ready for Mr. Reagan's signature.
House Democrats are convinced that $11 billion for farm programs over the next four years won't rescue farmers from their deepening economic problems. They dub the new legisation the ''Farm Bankruptcy Act.'' Farm-state Democrats insist that the American economy will suffer if more farms are ploughed under by high inflation, high interest rates, and low returns.
One House staff member explains that the new bill responds to ''crisis conditions on our farms'' with ''a much weaker safety net than was the case for the '77 farm act.'' As a result, he adds, Democrats ''don't want any identification with the administration's farm bill because it is going to redound against the people who approve it . . . so if anyone is going to pass the Republicans' farm policy, it has to be the Republicans.''
Congressional footwork gets tricky, however. Democrats want the Republicans to take the blame for passing an ''inadequate'' farm bill. Yet at the same time, the Democrats are counting heads closely to ensure the bill passes.
Gene Moos, senior staff analyst for the House Agriculture Committee, explains that if the current farm bill doesn't pass, ''Congress would have to come back with emergency legislation next year and it would be just ratcheted down another notch or two in terms of support and income protection. . . . You are looking at budget deficits of $100 billion-plus that are going to create pressures to further reduce the cost of government programs, and it's hard to conceive that urban and suburban congressmen would vote for an increase on the agriculture side while swallowing cutbacks on their urban and suburban programs.''
Randy Russell, assistant to Secretary of Agriculture John Block and his farm-bill coordinator, agrees that the best hope for passage comes if Congress and farm organizations accept that if the current bill fails to pass, ''we probably would come out with one that was far more austere next year.''
Mr. Russell accepts that farmers face severe economic pressures. But he says, ''Most of the congressmen and senators realize that no farm bill is going to offer prosperity to American agriculture, that the only way prosperity is going to be achieved is through the marketplace.''
Reagan's farm bill, he insists, is intended to help farmers ''by making agriculture more market oriented. . . . There is not enough money in the US Treasury to guarantee farmers an adequate income. The only way that an adequate profit is ever going to be achieved for the agricultural sector is going to be through the marketplace, it is not going to be through the government.''
Agricultural economist Don Paarlberg, a chief architect of current farm policies, agrees that budget cutting may be painful and unpopular, but is necessary and will prove beneficial.
Dr. Paarlberg says farm-state gripes are to be expected, ''particularly when a bill is pending.'' He sees many farm problems caused by farmers overextending themselves. With the nation facing a $100 billion deficit, he says, this is not the time ''to increase sharply the cost of the farm programs.''
If some farmers are bankrupted, Paarlberg adds, ''Their land will be taken over and operated by people who have been more conservative in their planning and agricultural production will not be diminished.''
The administration's aim, he argues, is to sow the seeds for true agricultural prosperity, based not on government supports but on responding efficiently to increasing world demand for food and fiber. If the 1981 farm bill is passed, says Paarlberg, it will be an ''incremental step toward greater decision making on the part of farmers and the reduced role of the government in the pricing and production of farm products.''