THE SENATE did a good deed last week: it voted to phase out the honey price support program. Then it turned around and did a bad deed: it folded into the farm bill a new program for, yes, sunflower growers.
The honey program dates from World War II, a time when beekeepers prospered. There was demand both for honey, as a substitute for sugar, and for beeswax, as waterproofing for ammunition. When demand plummeted after the war, the beekeepers turned to Congress for help. The program was justified on grounds the nation badly needed bees to pollinate its crops.
For years the program's cost was low; the beekeepers were able to sell almost all their honey. But recently they have lost much of the market to lower-priced foreign honey. In 1983, the government was left with 106 million pounds of domestic honey at a cost of $65 million. A few large producers have walked away with payments of more than $1 million a year.
"You have a millionaire bees club around America," Dan Quayle told the Senate, offering the amendment to phase the honey program out. The measure, he said, "is very simply a litmus test of whether this place can say no to anybody." Sen. Larry Pressler, in other contexts a foe of government spending, defended the program. "Let us not destroy a basic industry, one that is basic to our food supply and, yes, I would say to our national defense," he said. But a motion to table the Quayle amendment lost, 60 to 36. The matter now goes to conference with the House, whose Agriculture Committee Chairman E (Kika) de la Garza is a supporter of the honey program.
As to sunflowers, whose seeds are crushed for oil, it is said the program will be for this year only. The growers will be paid $35 an acre of flowers or $2 per hundredweight of seeds, whichever is greater. The estimated cost is around $100 million. The program was tucked into the bill by Majority Leader Bob Dole. It brought him the vote of Sen. Mark Andrews of the sunflower-growing state of North Dakota. Perhaps the taxpayer should be grateful. Mr. Andrews had been holding out for a four-year freeze at current levels of the deficiency payments made to grain, rice and cotton farmers when the markets are low. That would have cost billions. He settled for a two-year freeze instead, after which the payments could come down.
Mr. Quayle, in the honey debate, said: "This is a lesson of political science. How to get organized . . . at the grass roots . . . and make sure that you contact that senator and that congressman, and make sure they preserve the status quo. Make sure they preserve that sweet subsidy. . . . Make sure that they are able to organize, and will come up and, by golly, if you do not vote for them, watch out for those bees, watch out for those bees. We need bees. We like the little buzz and hum. We like bees."
And flowers. The conferees should drop the sunflower amendment. Does anyone think they will?