We've all heard the old expression, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." It may not apply in all situations, but it could well be true this year for agricultural policy making and Congress.
Nineteen-eighty-five is the year for Congress to write new farm legislation to replace current authorities under the 1981 farm bill, which expires in October. Starting with 1986 crops, new programs are needed for most basic commodities, including feed grains, wheat, soybeans, cotton, rice, dairy, peanuts, and others. If Congress fails to act in time, some very complicated, antiquated, and potentially costly statutes -- some dating back to 1938 -- will automatically come into effect.
No one involved in agriculture wants that to happen. But some in Washington have already decided that the depressed farm economy will make it too difficult for Congress to write new legislation this year. they are arguing that, to avoid reverting to permanent law, we should simply extend the current 1985 farm program for another year or so.
This may be the conventional wisdom, but in my view it is neither conventional nor wise. The present farm program, as we never tire of telling each other in Congress, is full of policy contradictions. It encourages fence-to- fence production while requiring farmers to cut back their acreage to receive government benefits. It was meant to be market-oriented, but does not reflect the increasing trade restrictions and unfair competition faced by U.S. agricultural exports. It looks to the maketplace to provide adequate farm prices and income although the government has paid out $63 billion in program benefits to farmers in 1982- 86 compared to $57 billion during the preceding 20 years.
To continue current farm policies for another four years -- or even for one -- could cause irreparable damage to American agriculture. We are witnessing the relentless erosion of our foreign markets for agricultural exports, a trend that will accelerate if forceful action is not taken soon. The fabric of our rural economy and society -- so dependent on farm income -- is unravelling at an alarming rate.
The operating capacity of companies that process and merchandise farm commodities is down to as low as 40 percent. Truly, we are faced with a crisis that requires immediate action in Washington, and at the state and local levels. It will only get worse -- not better -- if we wait another year.
Some members of Congress would have us believe that the farm credit bill vetoed by President Reagan was a responsible effort to address the crisis by advancing loans to farmers on the crops they will harvest later this year. For farmers who have a fair chance of staying in business, however, the last thing needed or wanted is more government credit. Their deoad and iteerest payments are already at backbreaking levels. Advancing half the loans would only have created a new cash-flow problem after harvest, when the full loans are usually made.
The fact that this unnecessary budget buster was vetoed may provide some members of Congress a covenient excuse for sitting on their hands and delaying action on the farm bill. There may also be some glib arguments in favor of "freezing" farm supports and expenditures at 1985 levels as part of the budget process.
The real reason for inaction, unfortunately, is that the political risks of trying to do something responsible to help the farmer are far greater than the likelihood that we will write "popular" legislation. A number of our staunchest farm advocates go through their entire congressional careers without ever voting for a farm bill. They can never be satisfied. Enough is never enough. They would rather allow agriculture to continue its downward slide and blame the administration than seek responsible solutions that may dissatisfy some of their constituents.
I never have and never will participate in this charade. Those of us from farm states were sent here to develop and, it is hoped, improve agricultural policy. That is our responsibility. Those who do not intend to do their job should go home and give someone else a chance.
The Senate Agriculture Committee began holding hearings on the 1985 farm bill two weeks ago. There are more than 20 hearings scheduled before markup of the legislation starts in May. There have been some hearings on various issues by the House Agriculture Committee. There is some question whether the House actually intends to write new farm legislation this year. But budget reconciliation instructions are likely to require a response from all authorizing committees by mid-May. I hope the process will move forward before then.
Everyone agrees that the farm policies of the past four or eight years have not worked well. They have contributed to overproduction and low commodity prices. They have been expensive, and not just because of some decision or mismanagement by one administration or the other. Congress can also take its share of the blame.
Still, I believe we can write a good bipartisan farm program that works better and costs less. And even if we can't, we owe it to farmers and taxpayers to try.