VERNARD Frederick, a beef and grain farmer from Flasher, N.D., came to town last week to see how his Congress was getting along in writing the new farm bill that is supposed to point him and American agriculture in hopeful new directions.
Frederick couldn't get into the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing room (it was packed with lobbyist types who had no dirt under their nails) but he needn't have bothered that much.
What he would have seen and heard is that Congress is getting along very poorly in writing a farm bill. Not only is Congress performing inexcusably. It's becoming a laughing stock.
Screeds of this sort usually pause about here and offer the easy suggestion that Congress ought to just fold up its tent and go home. Let's try something more basic. Congress ought to get some guts and start doing some serious thinking about the crisis in agriculture.
Not a week has gone by in 1985 that has not brought more bad news about the dismal state of the farm economy and its depressing effect on rural communities. The news is so undeniably bad that even the Reagan administration no longer denies it.
And not a week has gone by without a gaggle of farm-state lawmakers sounding off about agriculture's problems. Farm prices are down, exports continue their downward spiral, real interest rates are staying high and farm failures go on apace. The future, most forecasts say, holds more of the same.
So there is wide acknowledgement of the crisis in agriculture. All of the right things have been said and astute observations made. But the speeches and bright ideas for solving it that flowed off Capitol Hill during the winter have taken on the must of antiques shoved into a closet that Congress now is wary of opening.
Part of the problem stems from the administration's insistence that farm program costs be cut, which seems to have intimidated Congress into paralysis. Another part is the absence of clear feeling about remedies for the generally recognized failure of current programs -- not that there hasn't been enough time for thought. But a larger part of it is the institutional inability of Congress to make hard intellectual and political choices.
Chuck Kanten, a Minnesota farmer who was here with Frederick as part of a family-farm lobby effort organized by the church-backed Interfaith Action for Economic Justice, surveyed the scene dolefully. "There's a great amount of disappointment in our part of the country . . . a feeling that Washington doesn't understand how desperate it is," Kanten said.
"I would echo Chuck," said Mike Randall, another farmer-lobbyist from Dell Rapids, S.D. "People are somewhat disappointed. The problem was heightened to national attention last winter and now it seems to be a stalemate."
A House Agriculture Committee aide put it another way: "Just when (the committee members) get to the point of thinking, someone takes a walk . . . . They don't even know what their political aim is on this one. They ought to be locked into a room and not let out until they've made some hard choices."
But finding enough of them to lock into a room is a problem in itself. The Senate committee has been plagued by absenteeism. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), for example, made a first cameo appearance on Day 12 of the Senate markup. Others drift in and out.
When Chairman Jesse Helms (R- N.C.) corrals the requisite number of players, the show often dissolves into inanity. Reporters at the press table run a pool on a completion date; other times they compile a running anthology of mirthful senatorial quotes.
A favorite came from Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.), who unwittingly captured the madcap sense of it all. He counseled fellow committee members not to confuse themselves by reading details of a pending bill.
One day Sens. Alan Dixon (D-Ill.) and Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) fought off the ennui with a game of tick-tack-toe. Another day, the committee interminably pondered the meaning of Public Law 480, the Food for Peace program that has been around for a generation. Occasionally a senator turns to the committee staff for an explanation of a bill he himself introduced.
Last week Helms ran a straw poll to get some idea of what the committee wanted to do on basic issues. He had reason to wonder: The pending price support section contained more than 2,000 separate proposals that could be debated and haggled over. Members spent a good deal of time arguing over the semantics of the wording of the questions. The poll indicated the committee wasn't quite sure what it wanted to do.
It's been a bit better in the House, although the subcommittees dealing with different sections of a bill didn't come close to meeting a May 15 deadline that Chairman E (Kika) de la Garza (D-Tex.) had set to finish their work and send it on to the full Agriculture Committee.
When Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) convened his subcommittee on wheat and feed grains and asked for ideas and proposals on the important price-support provisions, he was greeted -- quite literally -- by stunning silence. The subcommittee finally found its collective tongue and plugged along for days mulling over program possibilities.
"There's a real quandary," said one subcommittee aide. "They want to find a way to protect farmers' income without spending a lot of money . . . . They may find that's an impossibility."
For a while, a "marketing loan" proposal by Rep. Arlan Stangeland (R-Minn.) stirred subcommittee interest and seemed to be gaining momentum. But colleagues raised so many questions that Stangeland withdrew the proposal, for redrafting or rethinking. Before he did that, though, he put an admonishing statement into the record.
It said in part: "Like it or not, we are all going to be forced to make difficult choices in crafting this year's farm bill to fit the budget . . . . It's the privilege and responsibility of each member of this subcommittee to realistically address and come to grips with the short-term and long-term needs of American agriculture."
The next day Stangeland's amendment was adopted. All it takes, apparently, is a little straight talk.