North Dakota. Peace Garden State. Endless rolling prairie, land of farmers and rippling fields of grain. Rural, sparsely populated. So sparse that it is allocated only one congressman. So small that it is bereft of political clout in Fat City.
Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong again.
Like every other state, North Dakota has two U.S. senators and one of them, Quentin N. Burdick (D), happens to be chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that holds the purse strings of agriculture. That is ipso facto clout.
A Martian thumbing through the subcommittee's recently released report on agricultural appropriations for fiscal 1988 understandably might get the idea that North Dakota is a center of the universe, the main source of our food and a principal locus of intellectual inquiry.
That's how generous the subcommittee has been to North Dakota, deluging it with beaucoup dollars for every imaginable agriculture program. A few examples: $75,000 for dry bean research; $370,000 to study ethanol fuel use; $69,000 for biological control of grasshoppers; unspecified amounts to create a regional rural development center; $500,000 for sunflower and sugar beet research, and on and on.
The best -- or the most -- may have been reserved for the University of North Dakota. If Burdick has his way, scholars there will get $600,000 to study the impact of the nuclear accident last year at the Chernobyl power station in the Soviet Union.
The subcommittee report said the study would cover the effect on soil, water, vegetation, food supply, crops and livestock, food contamination and "other aspects of the disaster." The study is supposed to bring together the best U.S. academic specialists, who will write an "environmental and spatial impact statement."
If impressed with North Dakota, that same interplanetary visitor might get a similar impression about Mississippi as he perused the report of the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee. That panel is chaired by Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.), who also heads the full Appropriations Committee.
Under the House version of the spending bill, Mississippi would make out extraordinarily well. Among other items, there would be $1 million for a new polymer institute at the University of Southern Mississippi; $100,000 for redfish research at Mississippi State University; $500,000 for curriculum improvement at Mississippi Valley State University; $300,000 for pesticide research at the Stoneville experiment station, and $500,000 for research at a physical acoustics laboratory at the University of Mississippi.
The cryptic entry in the subcommittee report about acoustical research becomes a bit clearer in the Senate version. It turns out that the work involves developing and testing an acoustics system to count and size the commercially grown catfish that churn around farm ponds in the Mississippi Delta.
The committee said that since it believes acoustics research can be a big help to agriculture, it expects the laboratory to move into other areas such as detection and repelling of insects, and testing of farm products from cotton fiber to wood laminates.
But one thing leads to another. The Senate noted that the rapidly burgeoning catfish industry has problems other than counting. The creation of about 80,000 acres of catfish ponds has led to a "dramatic" invasion of fish-eating cormorants. Thus, $100,000 was appropriated to battle cormorants.
The congressional seniority system gives Mississippi a special place in the agricultural appropriations lottery. Whitten, who has been in the House longer than any other member, is widely regarded around Washington as the "shadow" secretary of agriculture, given his clout and interest in the subject.
Behind Burdick on the Senate subcommittee, the ranking Democrat is John C. Stennis of Mississippi. The ranking Republican is Thad Cochran of Mississippi. Before Democrats took control of the Senate this year, Cochran had been chairman of the panel.
For almost every designated expenditure in the agricultural appropriations reports, there is an interested member sitting on the subcommittees. It even extends to an ex officio member such as Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.), who, as ranking Republican on House Appropriations, has a seat on every subcommittee.
It's not a lot of money by catfish-counting standards, but right there in the House bill's fine print is $60,000 for research on Belgian endive, just as there was last year.
Could it possibly be the work of Conte, who has nurtured a reputation as an enemy of pork-barrel spending and excessive outlays for agriculture? The House report doesn't say, but the congressman's office confirmed that, yes, he is very, very interested in the one-of-a-kind Belgian endive studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Conte, by the way, got the project into the appropriations pipeline with a $60,000 grant for fiscal 1987.