"WE HAVE NOT been guided by political considerations." When a government official says that, watch out. The official we have quoted here is Richard Lyng, the deputy secretary of agriculture, and the subject is the Department of Agriculture's decision to delay for 45 days its plan to collect 50 cents per 100 pounds of milk from dairy farmers to help defray the cost of the dairy price- support program. You will probably not be surprised to learn that one of the leaders of a group of congressman arguing against immediate collection of the fee was Steve Gunderson, a Wisconsin Republican whose district contains more dairy cows than people. The 45-day period -- described by a USDA official as "the normal comment period" -- has the happy effect of getting Rep. Gunderson and other Republican congressmen past Election Day before the fee is imposed on any of their constituents. Anyone who believes that "political considerations" are not involved here should check under his pillow for the 50 cents from the tooth fairy.
Having said that, we should add that what the administration is doing does not strike us as a Class- A offense. We doubt that interested voters will be deceived. Dairy farmers have very competent lobbyists who have worked hard over the years to increase dairy price supports, and these lobbyists presumably have informed their members that the 50-cent fee is coming and who is responsible. And we doubt dairy farmers have failed to notice that the administration, with allies in both parties in Congress, has halted what was until 1981 a constant increase in federal support of an industry for whose products demand has been declining.
The 45-day delay is irksome, but what is important is that the 50-cent fee ultimately be imposed. The fee will effectively reduce the price support of milk from $13.10 to $12.60 per hundredweight, and will therefore encourage dairy farmers to reduce rather than increase production. For too long, dairy price supports have encouraged overproduction, which in turn raises the cost of the program. To get an idea of the amounts at stake, you need only to realize that the 45- day delay in imposing the 50-cent fee will cost the government about $100 million.
So it is true, as critics charge, that some money will be lost by this delay. But, if the administration is acting less than candidly here, on the whole it deserves credit for working hard, against heated opposition from the dairy lobbyists, to reduce the cost of the dairy price support program. Beating down a well-entrenched lobby is sometimes a zigzag process, but on this one the administration has done enough zigging in the right direction to earn the right to a little zag.