Tight, tight and tight again is one way to describe the Agriculture Department's proposed budget for fiscal 1984.
The $35 billion agriculture and nutrition budget may be "tight, fair, realistic . . . defensible," as Secretary John R. Block put it, but it also is $10 billion less than the tight, fair, realistic budget offered a year ago.
Spending on dozens of USDA programs, from soil conservation and animal plant health inspection to nutrition and water and sewers, would be reduced under the Reagan administration's proposals.
The tightest squeeze would be in small community and rural development outlays, which stand to be cut $4.1 billion if Reagan gets his way, an iffy proposition, given strong congressional support for the programs.
In the biggest cut, funds for rural housing programs would fall to $1.2 billion from the fiscal 1983 level of $3.5 billion, and an $850 million state block grant scheme would supplant the housing work now done by the Farmers Home Administration.
Food and consumer services programs also would feel the pinch of the budget cutters, with a $1.4 billion reduction. The big changes: food stamps would be chopped about $1 billion, by freezing a cost-of-living increase, and child nutrition would drop $240 million.
The other part of the budget story at USDA involves farm programs, which are costing record amounts because of the double dilemma of depressed farm prices and skyrocketing commodity production. For starters, the FmHA budget for operating loans to hard-pressed farmers would increase $350 million to more than $1.8 billion.
But without changes in farm supports, USDA says farm income stabilization programs would cost a record of nearly $20 billion during the current fiscal year because of surpluses and low farm prices.
The administration already has taken a first step toward change, creating a payment-in-kind (PIK) program to give farmers surplus federal grain, rice and cotton in return for not planting part of their acreage this year. If it works, the PIK plan will cut production, boost farm prices and reduce federal loan and direct subsidy payments to farmers.
USDA anticipates, however, that crop support loans would hit $11.8 billion this year, up about $300 million from 1982, but would decline to $8 billion next year as one result of PIK.
A key part of the administration's legislative program, also certain to be controversial, calls for a freeze on the direct subsidy payments at 1983 levels. By law, these payments increase annually and the budget estimates that they would cost $6.1 billion this year.
The administration also will seek congressional authorization to donate surplus federal commodities abroad and it will ask for more austere price support programs for honey and extra-long staple cotton.
See chart in originial