Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland told aides last week that he "might as well go home" if his credibility with Congress continues to erode as a result of unclear guidelines from the White House on farm policy.
The remark was cited yesterday as an example of the frictions between the farm agency and the White House staff since March 29, when the administration announced a package of emergency measures to help farmers.
The hastily approved measures are intended to head off congressional passage of a far more expensive aid program. In the last few days, the administration's handling of the situation has caused White House officials to blame Bergland for acting too late and has prompted countercharges at the Department of Agriculture that the president's desires have been left hazy and unspecific.
James C. Webster, director of the department's office of governmental and public affairs, said yesterday he doubted "very sincerely" that Bergland is considering resigning, as was reported last week by The Detroit Free Press.
"I was with him until 7 o'clock Friday night," Webster said. "He's going back to work on Monday and make this administration farm program fly."
However, a number of officials in and out of the department confirmed that there had been disagreements over tacts and timing of the administration's response to the months of farmers' complaints about costs higher than incomes.
"There was a feeling that, in this case, the system of cabinet government didn't work well. Bergland is now going to have to regain lost ground," said one official outside the department.
Department officials answered that by saying the agency had sent a 15-page memorandum to the White House on March 13 specifying options that the president could take to help farmers.
Eight days later, with the Senate moving rapidly to approve legislation that critics said could "destroy American agriculture" by pricing farm products out of world markets. Carter called a meeting to discuss the situation.
Several persons present said Bergland spoke for about 15 minutes before being interrupted by the president, who said, "I don't think I hear any recommendations." The meeting, which one White House official said he regretted "had ever happened," broke up without any decisions being made.
Next day a decision memorandum was forwarded to the president by economic adviser Charles L. Schultze, presidential assistant Stuart Elizenstate, budget director James T. McIntyre and Frank Moore, the president's special assistant for congressional liaison.
Bergland's name was not on the memo, though White House officials said last week that his department's "input" was the basis for the paper.
After the president indicated his preference for a limited aid program, Vice President Mondale called Bergland to the White House to go over the final program, which was announced the following day, March 29.
During Bergland's press conference explaining the package, the secretary said the administration would consider an increase in income supports for wheat farmers up to $3.40 to $3.50 a bushel."
Administration officials voiced surprise at this, saying a maximum of $3.40 had been agreed to at the meeting the previous day.
Government economists said the 10 cent different, if approved by Congress, could raise government payments to farmers by $160 million to $180 million a year.