President Carter, conceding that inflation "is getting worse," ordered an easing of beef import quotas yesterday and warned Congress that it risks "a series of vetoes" if it continues to increase government spending.
Carter's order will allow an additional 200 million pounds of beef to be imported into this country this year above the 1.3 billion pounds allowed under the the existing beef import quota program. The decision provoked sharp criticism from the National Cattlemen's Association, but administration officials claimed it would slow the rise in the price of hamburger without hurting the incomes of beef producers.
The president appeared personally before the television cameras in the White House press room yesterday to announce the beef decision and issue a stronger-than-usual plea for cooperation in the administration's anti-inflation efforts.
He did not threaten to veto specific bills, but did cite what he called examples of congressional attempts "to increase spending unnecessarily." He said Congress wants to add "several hundred million dollars" to the administration's education budget requests and is moving toward approval of construction of a new $2.5 billion nuclear aircraft carrier "which is not needed."
Someone has to hold the line of the budget, and I am determined to do so," Carter said. "This is one of the most important and difficult decisions that we will have to make and there are literally hundreds of decisions to be made. And I call upon the Congress to join with me to avoid a series of vetoes that will create disharmony in our government."
The president also asked private groups to halt their lobbying [WORD ILLEGIBLE] against anti-inflation measures and renewed his call for enactment of the administration's hospital cost containment legislation.
The bulk of the additional 200 million pounds of beef to be imported under the eased import quotas will come from Austrialia and New Zealand. Most of it will find its way into hamburger meat beginning late this summer.
Administration officials did not claim that the additional beef would have a dramatic impact on consumer prices. Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland predicted the move would reduce the price of hamburger by about 5 cents a pound from what it would be without increased imports. Under that kind of formula, the administration could claim success even if hamburger prices rise the rest of this year.
In ordering an increase in beef imports, the president rejected another option, strongly opposed by Bergland, to lift import restrictions entirely. But even the milder step brought criticism of Carter from the cattle industry, which has suffered through several difficult years and is just beginning to recover, and some farm state Democratic Party officials.
The Cattlemen's Association called the decision a "cruel hoax which will hurt rather than help consumers of beef."
"The projected import increase will do little or nothing to lower retail beef prices in the short term," the association said in a statement. "Over the longer term, the action is expected to lead to smaller beef supplies and even higher prices."