A "farm crisis" bill -- intended to help grain and cotton producers through the worst times they have faced since the Great Depression--died in a surprise tie vote in the Democratic-controlled House Agriculture Committee yesterday.
It was the second big recent attempt to bail out a failing sector of the economy. A mortgage subsidy program to shore up the housing industry has passed both houses of Congress--but it has been threatened with veto by President Reagan, who says special-interest bailouts will only add to the deficit, keep interest rates high and prolong the recession.
In the 21-to-21 vote that killed the farm bill, Republicans shared Reagan's reservations and in addition were put off by its approach of taking more land out of production to drive up prices, while a few Democrats from cotton-producing districts saw too little for their growers in it.
Democrats had hoped to bring the farm-crisis initiative to the House floor as an election-year acknowledgement of the plight of farmers caught in a vise of falling commodity prices, high interest rates and rising debt. It had not been expected to become law, but had been expected at least to get out of a committee in which Democrats hold a 24-to-19 edge.
"I was stunned by the vote," said Rep. Berkley W. Bedell (D-Iowa), one of the bill's sponsors.
Chairman E (Kika) de la Garza (D-Tex.) said he was not certain whether an effort would be made to resurrect the bill, but others predicted there will be no anti-recession package for farmers in this session as a result of yesterday's defeat.
"Any action out of this Congress is going to be very doubtful," said Robert Mullins, a lobbyist for the National Farmers Union, which had stirred congressional interest in the legislation with a report to Congress last month painting a grim picture of the farm economy.
The legislation would have given farmers in wheat, feedgrains, rice and cotton the option--if they so voted in national referenda--to take some of their land out of production as a means of forcing up prices.
Since the bill would take some crops out of production, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that it would save the federal government about $900 million in storage and price support payments over four years.
Agriculture Secretary John R. Block had put the administration on record last week against the measure. But its unexpectedly quick demise was due to more than this.
Rep. Thomas M. Hagedorn (R-Minn.) said the chief objection was the use of crop "set-asides" taking land out of production. Such tools have been used since the Great Depression to manage the farm economy and they "don't work," said Hagedorn. A Republican version emphasizing exports--without the set-asides--was rejected, 24 to 18.
All but one of the committee's Republicans, Rep. Arlan Stangeland of Minnesota, voted against the measure. But the death knell came in the "nay" votes of three Democrats, Reps. Tony Coelho of California, Jerry Huckaby of Louisiana and David Bowen of Mississippi, and in the absence of another Democrat, George E. Brown Jr. of California.
Said Coelho: "It didn't do anything for California cotton." Huckaby said he also worried that the bill might become a vehicle for limiting other farm programs in a budget-cutting fervor if it reached the House floor.