CONSIDER THE SOCIAL VALUE of collusive bidding. Think, for a moment, of all the ways in which the wink, the nod and the prearranged price can serve to strengthen community ties and local values. Perhaps you think we're kidding. But Congress isn't. The Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee has just voted; 11 to 3, for collusive bidding on those grounds. The 11 senators take a deep and abiding interest in community traditions.
Last year, without giving it much thought, Congress passed into law a provision designed - all too effectively - to end collusion in the bidding for the right to cut timber in federal forests. The new law merely required sealed bids instead of oral auctions. Sealed bidding has been the practice in most of the country. The exception was the Pacific Northwest, where the rigging of timber auctions was becoming notorious.
Collusive auctions permit the insiders - the companies regularly working an area - to divide up the sales among themselves and hold down the payments to the government. Equally important, it permits them to band together to keep out the outsiders. When the new law went into effect, the first response was a loud and steady yowling from the Nortwest. Then came a steady hammering on congressmen's doors.
This sudden threat to the established folkways of the region would mean, according to some of the timbermen, upheavel and social collapse. Towns would be left distitute, children would go hungry and crime rates would soar (except, of course, for the crimes of fraud, collusion and violation of the anti-trust statutes). Confronted with this dire prospect, Congress is acting fast.
Corrective legislation to restore oral - that is, collusive - auctions in the Northwest has already cleared the House Agriculture Committee. Things also look pretty good in the Senate Agriculture Committee, which shares jurisdiction with the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The cause of community preservation and economic togetherness rests in good hands.