The administration's blueprint for rural development, a countrified version of President Reagan's New Federalism, is running into trouble where one might expect it least: from influential Republicans on Capitol Hill.
The plan, required by the Rural Development Policy Act of 1980, went to Congress last month, but it came out a bit differently than rural-state legislators envisioned. It proposes returning "power to the people," but stresses that Rural America no longer can count on Washington for development money.
That approach has rubbed raw nerves in Congress, particularly among GOP members. For instance, Sen. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.), chairman of a rural development subcommittee, is using words like "troglodytes" to describe presidential advisers and "fluffery" to depict their rural policy proposals.
Andrews intends to take his subcommittee to rural areas this year to try to get a better fix on development needs. He chaired a hearing in Vermont last month, and has another set for North Dakota in April. The hearing will be carried live on the state public television network.
"Given the fluffery we got in the name of a policy report," he said, "we're going to have to go out and build a record that we couldn't get from the administration. They haven't analyzed the needs, haven't identified the payout that can be expected from investment in rural development."
Andrews termed the policy paper "a travesty" made more disappointing, he said, by the fact that it came from fellow Republicans.
"We've had a lack of attention since the Johnson era," he said. "Benign neglect. We Republicans are just not seeing the opportunities we are missing."
The policy was developed by the Department of Agriculture after hearings by a national advisory council named by Secretary John R. Block to identify the problems and needs of rural America. Generally, the report said that more of the same Reagan policy is the answer for rural development.
Poverty, inadequate housing and services and underdevelopment will change, the report said, by following the formulas of New Federalism: block grants to give local governments more authority and flexibility, regulatory reform, better federal data collection, expanded farm exports, review of rural credit access.
This strategy has Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), chairman of the agriculture appropriations subcommittee, digging in against the White House's proposed massive reductions in Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) housing, another of the planks in the new rural platform.
It has Sen. Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.), chairman of a rural housing subcommittee, showing similar reluctance, worrying out loud about the political consequences of the administration's plan to slash spending and then turn rural housing programs into block grants for the states.
On the House side, Rep. Wes Watkins (D-Okla.), chairman of the Rural Caucus, calls the administration's approach "inadequate."
"The problem with this New Federalism is that the states are broke and, without emphasis from Washington, their priorities won't be on rural development," he said.
"I don't want to be completely negative and I give them a plus for endorsing rural enterprise zones" to attract new job producers to rural areas through tax and regulatory incentives, he added. "But this doesn't fulfill the needs of rural America."
Andrews, typifying the growing frustration felt by many rural legislators, said that his country constituents are increasingly fed up with political promises of assistance that somehow do not pan out.
"For 10 years, we've been saying this," he said. "Rural development sounds good, everybody bows low to the idea and the candidates rush to support it. But in the end . . . people are getting turned off on government because it is not responsive to the rural needs."
Bowing and scraping has been going on for some time. The first big federal effort to focus on the quality of rural life was President Theodore Roosevelt's Country Life Commission, which sketched ideas for bolstering "a new and permanent rural civilization" nourished by government to feed and clothe America.
Policies aimed at this end have waxed and waned since that time. But the new budget austerity of the 1980s and the Reagan approach to government, which translates to reduced federal support of rural programs, exasperates legislators like Andrews.
"Our nation has been denying its rural strength for 200 years," he said. "We've looked down on the farmer as a country cousin, but he has made all of our success possible. It begins with agriculture . . . . That's why a meaningful report by the administration would have been such a help. We would have had a better idea of the needs and the ways to provide support."
Reagan's first two budgets cut heavily into rural support programs that had grown up over the years in the USDA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the new fiscal 1984 proposal goes farther.
It proposes huge cutbacks in outlays for water and sewer programs, business and rural electrification loans and community facilities development. But the biggest blow would hit FmHA, essentially removing it from rural housing programs and cutting federal spending from $3.1 billion to $850 million.
Citizen groups such as the Rural Housing Coalition and the Rural Coalition, upset by the USDA policy proposal, are lobbying vigorously to thwart the big changes in housing. Watkins, and aides to Cochran and Mattingly, working with these groups, indicate that the administration's housing block-grant idea is as good as dead.
"The administration's analysis of the rural problem is fine," said Catherine Lerza, associate director of the Rural Coalition. "But they neglect to say how they have cut the budget during the last two years. They say they are empowering rural people to help themselves, but they're really only putting an additional burden on the rural America."
The latest round of political flak started flying after Block sent Congress the administration's development policy plan, a paper entitled "Better Country," which was almost two years late in meeting a congressional deadline.
"It's a travesty," Andrews said. "What makes it worse is that this was done by my party . . . . We don't want the troglodytes to say the job is done. And that's what they're saying."