As Congress begins to do battle over President Reagan's proposed fiscal 1983 budget cuts, backers of the summer feeding program for poor children already have fought a skirmish over what they see as a move to kill the much-maligned program now.
Funding for the summer program was cut this year and the administration has recommended no funding for 1983.
But some supporters feel the administration has been trying to kill the program by also delaying regulations that sponsors say they need to run programs this summer. The final rules were due Jan. 1, but weren't published until yesterday, after a nutrition group filed suit over the delay.
Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.), ranking minority member of the House Education subcommittee on elementary and secondary education, complained earlier this month that "the bureaucratic foot-dragging . . . appears to be a deliberate and blatant attempt to 'deep-six' this program next summer."
Without lead time, he added, the program will be plagued by the same "shoddy operations" as in past years, with administration spokesmen "quick to say 'We told you so.' " In a Feb. 5 letter to Budget Director David A. Stockman, Goodling said the regulations were needed to spare the administration "unnecesssary embarrassment and adverse national publicity. We don't need 'relish, ketchup or egg' on our face next summer."
He and several other influential members of Congress, including Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and Rep. Carl D. Perkins (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, criticized the first version of the regulations, published Dec. 11, as going too far in restricting the eligibility of groups to sponsor the program.
The summer feeding program started in 1968 and grew by 1980 to the point where it was serving 2.3 million children at an annual cost of nearly $120 million. Changes envisioned by new controls in last summer's reconciliation bill are estimated to cut the program to $60 million a year.
The program has been plagued in recent years by reports of fraud and abuse by contractors and private sponsors. Thomas McBride, the inspector general of the Agriculture Department at the time, uncovered kickback schemes, inflated meal counts and vendors serving children rotten food.
After rules were tightened, the cost of the New York City program dropped from $70 million to $28 million a year without cutting the number of youngsters served, recalled McBride, now the IG at the Labor Department.
An Agriculture spokesman said yesterday that the delay in getting the new rules out was caused by "the normal regulatory process," rather than an attempt to kill the program. The final rules published yesterday seem to correct some major complaints.
For instance, the proposed regulations limited sponsorship to local governments who operated the summer feeding programs directly and controlled the feeding site all year. The spokesman said the final rules added state entities as eligible sponsors and deleted the year-round operation requirement.
Ed Cooney, a lawyer for the Food Research Action Center, said his group is still skeptical about the administration's intentions. He said his group has heard that Agriculture doesn't plan to assign people to monitor summer feeding operations and that it intends to send out only one camera-ready copy of the guidelines and promotional materials to each state. The USDA spokesman conceded that in a cost-saving move, the department plans to limit the materials it sends out on the program.