Chairman Mark Andrews (R-N.D.) knew the answer without asking the question, but he went ahead and convened his Senate Agriculture subcommittee the other day to find out what the Reagan administration is doing about rural development policy.
The administration's rural development policy director didn't make it--he was at a meeting in Chicago. But the real reason for his absence, according to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), was that he had "nothing to contribute."
"This administration, through budget cuts, regulatory actions and noncompliance with the mandate of the Rural Development Policy Act of 1980, has shown itself to be plainly and simply anti-rural," Leahy said.
Andrews sternly agreed. "I was concerned when Democrats were in the White House and I am concerned now," he lectured the U.S. Department of Agriculture officials who did show up. "Rural America is suffering from bipartisan neglect."
It's not yet at open rebellion stage, but congressional patience is waning and tempers are growing short over the administration's policies toward rural America, where low income, inadequate housing, health care, and water and sewer systems are endemic problems.
The administration's smorgasbord of budget cuts, fewer loans, higher interest rates, abolition of some traditional rural assistance programs plus curtailment and tougher qualifying standards for those that remain are stirring a wave of resentment on Capitol Hill.
"I'm bitter about it," said Rep. Wes Watkins (D-Okla.), chairman of the 150-member Congressional Rural Caucus. "It's either intentional or it's ignorance. This administration's policies are policies of full destruction for the rural part of this country . . . . All we're getting is cheap rhetoric."
Much of the congressional criticism is directed at USDA's Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), which does more than provide operating loans to farmers. FmHA for years has been the principal federal provider of rural-support assistance, from business development and housing to water and sewer construction.
FmHA administrator Charles W. Shuman and his boss, Undersecretary of Agriculture Frank W. Naylor, vigorously defended their work at Andrews' hearing, but the senator wasn't buying it. Andrews told them USDA's "hokey-pokey" programs made it "difficult to know where this pea is under the shells."
These are some of the major changes in rural development programs:
* The president's fiscal 1983 budget proposes cutting FmHA housing assistance by 67 percent from this year's $4.1 billion. And this year's FmHA lending is way down--three quarters of the way through the year, the agency has half of its loan money and nearly a third of its rural rental aid money left.
* With administration backing, the Senate Banking Committee has approved legislation by Sen. Harrison H. Schmitt (R-N.M.) that would replace all of FmHA's rural housing aid with block grants to the states totaling no more than $850 million. Thirty-five senators, led by Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), have proposed an alternative that would keep FmHA in the housing business and continue spending at 1982 levels.
* Although a recent federal report said that more than 60 percent of rural residents are drinking contaminated water, the administration in its first 18 months has cut the rural water and waste disposal loan program by 60 percent.
* Tighter regulations and higher interest rates for these programs, although ostensibly geared to helping the poorest communities, have had a reverse effect, according to Leahy and Andrews. Leahy said that no community in Vermont, one of the most rural states, can now qualify for the loans. The same thing is happening in North Dakota, Andrews said.
* The community facility loan program, which provides for police and fire-fighting equipment, has been cut in half. Small grants for technical assistance on development schemes and planning grants have been wiped out. Among the first USDA employes to be furloughed were FmHA development strategists who worked at the state level.
* FmHA's once-active business and industrial loan program and its alcohol-fuel development program have slowed to a crawl. Andrews noted that only one alcohol loan has been approved this year, although Congress appropriated $250 million for the program.
While these cuts and changes are taking shots from Capitol Hill, there is more criticism of USDA's handling of the 1980 congressional directive to draw up a rural development policy. Secretary John R. Block did not create a rural policy development office until last October and he didn't name a full-time director, Willard (Bill) Phillips Jr., until several weeks ago.
Phillips is supervising the work of a Block-appointed advisory council that is supposed to come up with new development strategies after it pinpoints the needs of rural America.
Block, Naylor and Deputy Secretary Richard E. Lyng already have given a hint of things to come. They talk about reducing government spending in rural America, encouraging rural residents to more "voluntarism" and prodding private enterprise to take over development work traditionally handled by FmHA.
"The 1980 policy act was written with the enthusiasm of both parties," Leahy said in an interview. "It set broad goals and it relied on the judgment and honest commitment of the administration in power . . . but this administration has not followed through. There is no development initiative and we surely can't rely on voluntarism."
Phillips disputes Leahy's charge. He said recently, "We are trying to develop a strategy that really addresses what people are concerned about. They may want federal programs or they may not . . . maybe they want better delivery and management. I keep hearing of a number of regulations that rural people have to comply with that were primarily written for urban America . . . . We want to be able to go to the administration and say here are some things that can be done."
Rep. Watkins says that's "a false front, just a shadow of something they can point to. We're tired of reports and more reports and if that's all they've got, they can cram it. I'm not buying it. We know what the problems are and what the solutions are."
The administration's budgetary assault on development programs, meanwhile, has left once-muscular public interest and rural technical assistance organizations dazed and dismayed. Most of their federal grant money has dried up; several have closed their doors, others are scaling back their work.
"This administration is as bad as we thought it would be," said Robert Rapoza of the National Rural Housing Coalition. "The needs of rural America have been well documented, but you cannot have a rural policy without money. You can't have a rural policy when you don't want to do anything.
"They take congressional directives as suggestions. And every time you think they have nickled and dimed a program to the limit, they come back for more. These guys are very tough."