Modern-day populist movement sprouts among House Democrats

To the steel caucus, the space caucus, and the suburban caucus, add another subgroup in the House of Representatives. A small band of congressmen from mostly rural areas has formed a ''populist caucus'' with the immodest goal of changing the nature of political debate in the United States.

Calling for a ''fair shake'' for the little person, the family farmer, and the small-business owner, Rep. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, leader of the 14-member group, says it will push for a new economic structure ''which will allow people to climb up the ladder of success and make sure everyone pays a fair share of taxes.''

The caucus, which made its debut last week, claims to be walking in the footsteps of the Populist movement that flourished in rural America 100 years ago. At that time railroad monopolies had a stranglehold on transportation, and farmers were being squeezed by high interest rates.

The Populists called for breaking up the monopolies and passing a graduated income tax. Eventually, the Democratic Party adopted many of the Populist goals, and the movement died out.

Economic conditions now may be ripe for a revival. Farmers are again suffering from high interest rates and low commodity prices. The new populists charge that the graduated income tax has been so eroded that the wealthy and corporations no longer pay their share.

In Texas, stands such as those found enough support to elect populist Jim Hightower as secretary of agriculture, despite consternation among big agricultural concerns and opposition from the Reagan administration. Representative Harkin credits Mr. Hightower with encouraging him to start the new congressional group.

''Monied interests still exert a disproportionate influence over the government,'' says the caucus statement of principles. Instead of railroad monopolies, the caucus says, ''Today, it's the oil and large utility companies. . . .''

The group even has a direct tie to the Populism of the last century in Rep. James Weaver (D) of Oregon, the great-great-grandson of Gen. James B. Weaver, who ran for president in 1892 on the Populist ticket.

''My politics have always been populist,'' says the Oregon lawmaker. ''The greatest threat to a free economy is concentrated economic power. We have this today. It stifles individual initiative.''

A first target of the caucus is natural gas prices, which have gone up by 40 to 50 percent in some areas as the government drops price controls.The congressmen are calling on customers to protest by sending receipts from their gas bills to their caucus (after they've been paid, Congressman Harkin adds).

''Populists are in favor of a strong government in the area of antitrust and regulating those natural kinds of monopolies that have control of natural resources,'' says Harkin, who argues that natural gas should be regulated by the government.

''I've got hundreds of independent gas producers in West Virginia,'' says Rep. Bob Wise (D) of West Virginia, another caucus member. He says that these small companies can provide natural gas at $3 to $4 per thousand cubic feet, but West Virginia utilities continue to buy out-of-state at rates of $8 to $9 because of prior contracts. So customers pay more.

The heart of the problem, Mr. Wise says, is what he calls the ''daisy chain'' connecting utilities and big energy suppliers and also the practice of contracting for natural gas years in advance.

Although the caucus has no legislation yet, its goals state that ''energy should be made available at reasonable rates,'' and the government would play a big role in its effort to lower natural gas prices.

To combat high interest rates, the group favors strong congressional control over the Federal Reserve, which it charges has become a tool for big money interests. The populists would put small-business men and farmers on the Fed's board of governors.

The caucus would restore funds for small business which have been cut in the President's federal budget. It also seeks stricter enforcement of antitrust laws and the rollback of recent tax breaks for the wealthy and for corporations.

Harkin says he hopes ''to enlighten the American people'' on what he sees as the source of today's economic problems. But unlike his 19th-century predecessors, he has no desire to form a third party.He proposes that the all-Democratic group ''swing the Democratic Party'' in a populist direction.

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