Congress has got itself in a jam, a strawberry jam, but there's nothing sweet about it.
Few probably care in most parts of the country; but it has farmers, legislators, parents, children and yes, even editorial writers, in a juicy swivet in the state of Washington.
The issue is whether 10-and 11-year-old school children ought to be allowed to continue a hallowed summer custom in rural Washington of picking strawberries for spending money.
Washington (the capital) says they shouldn't be. Washington (the state) says they should.
The state's congressional delegation is attempting to amend a 1977 law that had the effect -- although not intended at the time -- of banning of 10- and 11-year-olds from western Washington's berry fields.
A House Labor subcommittee this week heard testimony from legislators, farmers, children and bureaucrats who are doing battle over a bill that would lift the ban.
It would be poetic, but probably not quite true, to that Democratic Reps. Al Swift and Norman Dicks, the bill's chief sponsors, are what they are today because of boyhood summers in the berry patch at home in Washington.
And the same goes for Democratic Sens. Henry Jackson, another erstwhile berry picker, and Warren G. Magnuson, who never picked them but liked the eating. They want the ban lifted, but have not yet introduced legislation.
It is another of those vintage yarns of Congress not saying exactly what it meant, the bureaucracy sticking unyieldingly to what it thinks was meant, and affected constituents climbing the walls in frustration.
Juding from these perspectives, it means (A) the demise of an industry, (B) the end of shortcake as we know it, (C) local tradition trampled on by rule-makers, (D) the worst kind of child exploitation, or (E) all or none of the above.
The idea of pre-teen youngsters laboring in hot fields on piece work is enough to make social reformers leap tall building Congress, in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1974, basically banned the hiring of any child under 12.
That was poison for some of this country's areas where short-season crops are important income producers, both for farmers and for otherwise unemployable youngsters who help with the harvest.
Hardest hit was rich agricultural area of western Washington, where such products as strawberries and spinach traditionally have been harvested by local kids.
Swift, Dicks, Jackson and others rhapsodize about the importance, of these summer jobs in teaching youngsters the work ethic and the value of money. The kids make money, the farmers get the crop in and the country eats.
The combination of a short harvest period -- three weeks -- and piece work rates makes it difficult for berry growers to attract migrant farmer workers. The average child harvester in the berry belt north of Seattle earns about $150, although older teen-agers who work longer draw as much as $300, the farmers say.
Some growers, like Michael Youngquist of Mt. Vernon, Wash., who testified this week, estimate that 10- and 11-year-olds pick as much as 25 percent of the state's annual $5.6 million berry crop.
"It is hard to explain that these children are not being browbeaten," Youngquist said.
"Our governor supports us on this and the state government is behind us. It has gotten so no politician can run for office without supporting the 10-11-year-old hiring," he said.
So in 1977, pressed by home state growers, the Washington delegation got the 1974 law amended to allow these tads back into the fields. The House went along, but a wrinkle was added in the Senate. Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) insisted on certain safeguards, and language was adopted to cover possible health perils from agricultural chemicals.
That's when things really became complicated.
The language said the secretary of labor could grant no waivers for 10- and 11-year-olds unless the applicant could prove that chemicals used on the crops would have no adverse effect on the youngsters.
The Washington state legislators went along with that (who could oppose it?) without imagining that Secretary F. Ray Marshall and his assistant secretary, Donald Elisburg, would adhere strictly to the law.
Washington growers, of course, could not provide the absolute health guarantees, even though federal regulators view chemicals used on strawberries as benign.
Since then, the issue has been caught in the federal courts. The farmers won restraining orders that allowed the 10- and 11-year-olds to help harvest in 1978 and 1979.
But this year, time and the law are running out. A federal appeal court here has upheld Marshall's refusal to grant waivers.
The grower's hopes now are pinned on another case in 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, which could come down on their side.
What would happen then, with berries turning sweet and sugary in the fields, and Marshall having to decide which way to turn??
A tough call, but the Washingtonians are thinking political clout ought to count for something, with Magnuson reigning as chairman of the Appropriations Committee that hands out the money Ray Marshall spends.