Why did you filibuster?

It is a fair question to ask someone who has publicly opposed filibusters and dislikes them. But Sen. J. James Exon of Nebraska and I were both forced to start a filibuster as the only available way left to us to deal with an urgent farm crisis.

There are three main reasons why we filibustered: 1)a real human tragedy is occurring, which 2)threatens the overall economy, and 3)we could find no other way to ensure action.

First, we couldn't turn our backs on the human tragedy that we see taking place. Over the last weeks and months, I have talked with thousands of farmers and their families in my home state. I talked for an hour with a farm wife who sobbed throughout our conversation as she told me that in less than a week she and her husband might lose their farm where her family had lived for three generations. She and her husband are hard workers. They had done all that anyone could humanly do to make a success on the family farm.

As I left a farm meeting in Lawton, Okla., some weeks ago, a farmer grasped my hand, looked me straight in the eye and said, "You won't forget us, will you? We're counting on you."

I promised myself that I would not forget and would not quit until I could honestly say that I had done all that I could.

The vast majority of our farmers are the victims of forces beyond their control. They would like to have a chance to compete in a truly free market, but there is no free market available to them. Our government has deprived them of many of their long-term markets by imposing embargoes on the export of their products. The budget deficits under both parties have caused our dollar to become so overvalued that we can't sell our food because other countries can't afford to buy our dollars to pay for it. Finally, governments in other countries subsidize their farm exports so that our farmers are forced to compete not with other farmers, but with the treasuries of other nations. It isn't a fair fight.

In spite of all that, our farmers have been subsidizing all the rest of us. The American worker spends only 16 percent of his income for food, while in Britain and Western Europe the figure is about 28 percent; in Russia, about 45 percent, and in many other countries in the world, over 50 percent.

Second, we decided to act because of our concern about the effect of the farm debt crisis on the rest of the economy. When land values collapse, it isn't just the bankrupt farmer who suffers. Even the neighboring farmer who has no debt at all may see the value of his farm fall drastically.

When land values collapse, banks whose loans are secured by the land get in trouble, and small businesses start to fold. This possible domino effect is chillingly reminiscent of that which began on the farms in the late 1920s and spread across the nation in the Depression of the 1930s.

Almost 20 percent of all American jobs are generated directly and indirectly by agriculture. Farmers are major customers of the auto and truck, steel, fuel, chemical, financial services and other industries.

Last year, we lost 1 percent to 4 percent of our farmers, and Farm Belt land values fell 10 percent. If we lose 15 percent in one year, as some predict, it is not hard to see what could happen to land values.

If a $4 billion shortfall at a Chicago bank threatened our national economy, just think what the failure of a third of our domestic farm debt of $220 billion could do to all of America.

Third, we finally turned to a filibuster because we had no other alternative. Usually filibusters are used to prevent action. In this case we used it to try to force action.

We tried every other avenue available to us. The full Senate Agriculture Committee has not scheduled a single meeting since the 99th Congress began. We were not assured of an opportunity to schedule a bill for full Senate action.

The administration clearly had not taken effective action. The bureaucracy was dragging its feet. As of last week, out of 104,000 farmer applications under the administration program announced last fall, only 5,200 FmHA debt restructuring applications had been granted and only 34 farmers in the entire nation had received action under the bank guarantee provisions.

What could we do? Certainly, Sen. Exon and I are not enemies of Ed Meese. In fact, we voted for his confirmation. However, the Justice Department has been operating for many months without disruption while waiting for his confirmation. A four-day delay did not seem to be an unreasonable price to pay to get some action on a serious national problem.

We did get results. Red tape and delays are cut under new guidelines and more farmers will qualify under changes that even White House spokesman Larry Speakes conceded would not have been made without the filibuster.

The Senate passed two additional proposals to help the farmer. In total they may, at most, cost $100 million. Surely we can find other ways to cut waste in the budget to come up with this amount without increasing the deficit.

How can we explain to farmers that we spent $4 billion to bail out a Chicago bank, $20 billion on foreign aid, hundreds of dollars each for toilet seats for the Pentagon and can't find some place to cut $100 million so that we can help our own farmers?

Let's work on a program giving farmers a chance to make a fair living, instead of just offering them more credit.