In an extraordinary repudiation of two powerful special interests, the House voted yesterday to kill a sugar price-support program and to put an end to historic protections for peanut growers.
The actions came as the House continued debate on a four-year farm bill that is now sharply at odds with both a Senate-passed version and White House insistence on fiscal austerity.
The double whammy on peanuts and sugar, a rare same-day rejection of two major farm powers, reflected consumer fears of cost increases and a reaction against special protections as other programs are cut. It also suggested more trouble for similar reasons for another rural kingpin, tobacco, when the House resumes debate next week.
Agriculture Committee leaders, abandoning plans to finish the bill yesterday, suddenly moved to postpone further action, ostensibly to make a new effort to reshape the badly battered agriculture coalition that in past years has had its way at virtually every legislative turn.
"The whole bill is in jeopardy now," said Rep. Margaret M. Heckler (R-Mass.), an engineer of the sugar derailment, "and the farm bloc is disturbed because its unity rule is broken. I would not be surprised to see the bill recommitted to the Agriculture Committee and there is talk of that occurring."
Heckler's partner in the sugar ambush, Rep. Peter A. Peyser (D-N.Y.), said the sugar and peanut defeats were "a good victory for the people today," and a result in large part of a strenuous lobbying effort by consumer organizations.
The votes against peanuts and sugar were also construed by some as a protest against deals that President Reagan struck on the two commodities. Reversing his original positions, he agreed to support both in return for southern votes on his tax and budget programs.
Ironically, the president's original farm bill proposals were identical to what the House did yesterday--reshaping the peanut program and providing no supports for sugar.
Administration strategists, however, still were displeased with the direction the House bill was taking. After a closed-door meeting with Republicans yesterday, they agreed to move next week to limit the bill to two years instead of four as a way of limiting potential costs of the longer-term measure.
That decision came after the House had adopted two amendments on wheat and feedgrains, requiring acreage set asides and higher price support loan rates, approaches that actually would save money, according to the Agriculture Department, but which the administration nonetheless opposed as intrusions in the marketplace.
These were the key votes:
By a vote of 250 to 159, the peanut amendment offered by Reps. Paul Findley (R-Ill.) and Stanley N. Lundine (D-N.Y.) was adopted. The amendment would end the acreage allotment and poundage-control system that limits growing to a relatively few farmers in the South and Southwest, and would put peanuts under the same price-support loan system as other commodities. Of peanut-growing Virginia's 10 members, only Frank R. Wolf (R) voted for the amendment; three of Maryland's eight members, Marjorie S. Holt (R), Beverly B. Byron (D) and Roy Dyson (D), voted against.
On a 213 to 190 vote, the Peyser-Heckler sugar amendment was adopted, with a surge of last minute votes. The amendment struck from the bill a new program for sugar, setting a price support of 18 cents per pound, which was estimated to cost consumers more than $2 billion a year in higher retail prices. Of Marylanders, only Holt and Dyson voted against the amendment; four Virginians, Republicans William C. Wampler, J. Kenneth Robinson, Stanford E. Parris and Thomas J. Bliley Jr., voted against.
By voice votes, the House adopted a wheat amendment by Glenn English (D-Okla.) and a corn and feedgrains amendment by Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.) that would attempt to raise sagging prices by regulating acreage and increasing loan levels when annual carryover stocks exceed specified levels.
The amendments were opposed by the administration, although the USDA conceded that they would cut government outlays and increase costs for domestic and foreign consumers. USDA argued that such legislation would impair U.S. ability to compete with foreign producers.
But the real excitement yesterday was over sugar and peanuts, in a legislative confrontation of large dimension pitting powerful consumer and industry lobbies against each other.
Sugar producers, deprived of their support program by a Peyser-Heckler amendment in 1979, came back this time at gale force, peppering Congress and the press with a barrage of information that pictured them nearing bankruptcy unless federal help came quickly.
Critics of the peanut program, such as Lundine, who called the acreage allotment system an "almost feudalistic control" that limits farmers' ability to produce, were joined by a phalanx of candy and nut processing firms in lobbying to reshape the program.
The leader of the goober coalition, Rep. Charles Rose (D-N.C.) portrayed the assault as a "mischievous" attempt to blame small family farmers for high prices of candy and peanut products.
But the old-time harmony of farm bill debates was gone yesterday.
"Why can't my farmers raise peanuts?" demanded Illinoisan Findley, who represents a major corn state but which has no peanut allotments. "Isn't this a free land?"
"My farmers go to bed at night dreaming about planting corn," Rose responded.
"But they can plant corn and they do," said Findley. "It is this discrimination on peanuts that violates the very fundamental principles in our country."
"We're facing a serious communications problem," said farm-stater Rose to farm-stater Findley. "Less than 5 percent of our people raise the food for the entire country. If we don't stick together . . . "
They didn't stick together and, for yesterday at least, it was a grim harvest for the farm coalition.