The Reagan administration yesterday tried to power a basic change in the complicated farm price support system through the House Agriculture Committee in a single day, but the politically nervous and somewhat offended committee refused to go along.
A day-long debate on a cost-cutting bill introduced less than 24 hours earlier produced charges that the White House was attempting to "blackmail" Congress, that Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman was manipulating farm policy and that Agriculture Secretary John R. Block was politically naive.
The administration bill, put in the hopper on Tuesday by Rep. Edward R. Madigan (R-Ill.), would empower Block to freeze at current levels the so-called target price subsidies that farmers would be paid in fiscal 1984 and 1985 on wheat, feed grains, rice and cotton. When prices fall below the targets, eligible farmers are paid the difference.
The proposal would have negated a section of the 1981 farm act that directs automatic yearly increases in the target levels through 1985. A freeze, according to the Department of Agriculture, would have cut $369 million from an anticipated $3 billion expenditure next year.
Madigan told reporters that he had enough commitments to send the bill to the floor, but as the day wore on his support vanished like biscuits at a harvest hands' table. Members seemed increasingly rankled at the administration's insistence that it be adopted without hearings in less than 24 hours.
Block, in an unscheduled appearance before the committee, said the freeze was justified because target price payments distort the market and encourage farmers to overproduce, adding to federal surplus-handling costs. He urged quick adoption of the legislation.
But Democratic farm-state members quickly mounted their rhetorical high horses, accusing Block of high-handedness in suggesting a trade-off--committee support for the target price freeze in return for administration support of a dairy bill the panel approved Tuesday.
Legislators from both parties made it plain they could not accept Block's freeze without knowing more details about the administration's still unannounced plans for continuation next year of the payment-in-kind program to reduce surpluses and boost farm prices.
After the committee accepted a proposal by Reps. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Glenn L. English (D-Okla.) to postpone indefinitely action on the bill, Chairman E (Kika) de la Garza laid the blame for the fireworks at the feet of Stockman and the OMB.
He said he will hold a hearing on the bill in timely fashion, probably in mid-June, but that he won't let OMB call his committee's tune. "Any implication of blame belongs in the OMB, not with Secretary Block," he said. "It's because OMB messed up . . . . They were foolish in forcing this to a vote today. I've said it many times--David Stockman is not a very good secretary of agriculture."