In the name of putting a T-bone steak on every American dinner plate, a group of Western senators has come up with a variation on the old bait-and-switch game that actually involves bait and a switch.
This variation, engineered by Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho), has infuriated the environmental community and drawn an unusually personal denunciation from Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus.
When the Senate last week was considering its agricultural appropriations bill for fiscal 1981, McClure pulled an unprinted amendment from his pocket and called it to a vote.
There had been no hearings on his amendment, no debate, no advance notice and, as he discussed it on the floor, McClure left the impression that his idea was a simple little thing that would cause no controversy.
What he proposed to do was remove the $17.5 million predator-control program from the Department of the Interior and shift it to the Department of Agriculture.
Predator control -- which consists mostly of eradication of the coyotes that plague herds of western cattle and sheep and drive ranchers to distraction -- is one of the more complicated and controversial programs in the federal government, fueled as much by emotion as fact.
McClure, who will be chairman next year of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Interior, told the Senate that the Interior Department, as he understood it, fully supported the transfer of predator control to the Agriculture Department, where ranchers think they would win a freer hand than they now have under Interior to put out poison bait for predators.
"That is totally false," Interior Secretary Andrus said after the surprise vote in the Senate. "I have opposed transfer of the predator program and I've talked to everyone in town about it. It doesn't belong in Agriculture."
Almost as angry was John Grandy of Defenders of Wildlife, whose organization has pressured Andrus, with considerable success, to establish a restrained predator-control program that would do as little harm as possible to wild creatures other than coyotes.
"Almost everyone understands that is a violation of good government procedures," Grandy said. "There is almost no time for the public to react. There hasn't even been a hearing on it."
One who did understand, Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), argued bitterly that McClure was slipping one past the Senate with an amendment on which no public discussion had occurred.
McClure and Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) shot right back. They said that unless some very serious coyote-killing takes place -- which they think would be the case under USDA -- voters in Ohio can forget about abundant supplies of beef and mutton. They said the Andrus program would give the coyotes the first and best bite, making livestock scarce and driving up prices.
Metzenbaum then objected that McClure was violating legislative process by writing law on an appropriations bill. The chair upheld Metzenbaum, but McClure then appealed to the Senate, which stood beside him in the parliamentary question by a 49-to-33 vote.
Sen. Robert Morgan (D-N.C.), voting against McClure, warned that the senate was working itself into potential trouble with such willy-nilly shifting of programs and money. Morgan then called for a roll call directly on McClure's amendment and he, too, was overshelmed, 53 to 29.
The McClure attachment to the agriculture appropriations bill will be subject to discussion when Senate and House conferees meet this week to work out differences in their respective bills. The House bill leaves predator control in Interior.
"The westerners simply want to kill more coyotes," Grandy said, "and they think we can go back to business as it was five, 10 years ago when mass slaughter of wildlife occurred on public grazing lands. Secretary Andrus, to his credit, saw that wasn't the way to do it and he has defined a balanced program that killed predators and emphasized better livestock husbandry practices.
"Previously, the death toll of wildlife was in the many thousands. Poisoned bait on the open range will kill whatever eats it; the same with traps. Andrus put an end to that by placing a premium on nonlethal techniques for protecting livestock," he said. "Nothing else works."
But a hungry Senate would not be deterred. McClure invoked the fear of more inflation, meat shortages and drastic changes in American eating habits if the dread coyote is not attacked more directly.
"I think the American people want action," McClure said. "They do not want us to debate over procedural formats."