In the next day or two, emergency farm credit legislation will be on President Reagan's desk. Administration officials have publicly counseled a veto on grounds the measure is too costly. Nor do they fancy the symbolism of a major economic bail-out as the first piece of legislation the president signs in his second term. These are valid concerns, given the need to do something this year about federal budget deficits. But President Reagan should look beyond their arguments and consider how this bill could serve the larger public interest at a relatively modest cost.
Farmers are notorious for crying wolf. But this time the crisis is real. A recent study by the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies indicates that nearly one-quarter of all medium-sized commercial farmers are now experiencing serious financial stress, and that more than one in 10 are on the brink of bankruptcy.
If these farmers go under, they will drag many rural banks down with them. Agricultural equipment manufacturers, who have already laid off half their workers, will retrench even further. Small-town businesses will shut their doors. In some regions, especially the Midwest, entire communities will be permanently crippled.
A few weeks ago, budget director David Stockman argued against federal credit relief on the grounds that the farmers' wounds were self- inflicted -- the product, he declared, of decisions made by "consenting adults." Frankly, there is some truth to what he says, but the circle of responsibility is far wider, and the government, not the farmer, is in the middle.
During the export boom of the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture urged farmers to plant crops from fence to fence, and lent them plenty of money on easy terms to do it. While inflation soared, rural lending institutions hawked cheap credit and accepted puffed-up land values as collateral for long- term loans. When the Federal Reserve Board switched to a tight-money, anti-inflation policy, the stage was set for rural collapse, which the world recession and falling farm exports of the early 1980s then triggered.
Agriculture -- one of the most credit-intensive and export-dependent sectors of our economy -- has never recovered from that recession. Thanks largely to huge federal budget deficits, real interest rates have tripled during the past four years and contributed to an overvalued dollar that makes our farm products far less attractive in world markets. U.S. grain farmers export 40 percent of their crops, and the value of those exports has dropped over 20 percent ($8 billion) since 1981. Commodity prices have collapsed, and annual interest on farm debt has soared to $22 billion.
In short, farmers have been victimized by reckless fiscal policies. But many of us -- especially those receiving large tax cuts and working in sectors insulated from international competition -- have actually benefitted from the deficit. All of us have a special responsibility to those whose suffering is the underside of our own prosperity.
Imperfect as it is, three key provisions of the bill President Reagan will receive can help alleviate some of this suffering.
First, it raises the authorized level of federal loan guarantees to banks by $1.85 billion. Nearly everyone agrees this is necessary to ensure that all farmers whose restructured loans meet cash-flow requirements and other standards of credit worthiness are eligible. Because these standards are resonably demanding, the default rate on restructured loans should be quite low and federal outlays to make good on guarantees correspondingly limited.
Second, to give the loan guarantee program a chance to work, the bill authorizes the Department of Agriculture to advance a portion of the crop price support loans, usually paid out after crops are harvested, to farmers who now have no other source of operating capital for their spring planting. The chief appeal of this loan advance is that it is the fastest way to get cash into farmers' hands.
The third provision is $100 million in federal funds, to be matched by states or individual banks, to buy down interest rates on farm loans.
These measures won't save everyone; that shouldn't be our aim. Nor will they permanently bail out some farmers who will receive the help this package offers. But farmers are a resourceful lot. At a reasonable cost to the taxpayer, this bill will buy time for tens of thousands of them who have a fighting chance of survival. It will also avert panic sales of farm land that could lead to collapse of land prices, hurting all farmers.
What is unfortunate about the bill is the precedent it sets. Using annual farm price support programs to solve long-term credit problems invites administrative nightmares, and will end up benefiting some farms that don't need it. Likewise, it will be difficult to focus the interest buy-down provision on deserving borderline cases. These problems could have been avoided if the administration and Congress had acted farsightedly just a few months ago.
At best, credit assistance can ease short-term distress and strike a reasonable balance among the interests of farmers, lenders and taxpayers. It cannot bring long-term prosperity to rural America. If crop prices and land values continue their slide, as many experts predict, we'll face a reprise of these problems soon.
We can't say much for the process by which this bill was formulated. Political posturing, emotionalism and drastic twelfth-hour action have become the rule in agricultural policy. Both Congress and the administration should be held to much higher standards in the next round of farm policy -- the 1985 farm bill -- if we're ever to put U.S. agriculture on the path to long-term prosperity and wean it from continual crisis intervention.