Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.) just has this obsession with honey.
Whenever he thinks about the federal honey-support program, which has cost taxpayers more than $165 million since 1980, Conte becomes a sort of predatory wasp in the legislative hive.
He unleashes swarms of criticism. He stings the program with outrageous puns. He demands that Congress wax a support scheme that has helped only about one
percent of the nation's beekeepers and encouraged them to stick the government with millions of pounds of honey that the beekeepers cannot sell.
Until the hectic final hours of last month's congressional session, Conte had been persuasive. Then the bee turned on the senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee and stung him.
Congress responded to Conte's cajoling by changing the honey program in 1985. It adopted a plan that saved the government money and averted surpluses by paying producers the difference between a price-support loan rate and the lower price they would get in the honey market, a difference of roughly 28 cents per pound.
For the country's largest honey producers, that meant big money. To avoid the money becoming too big, Conte got Congress to limit to $250,000 the support loans the producers receive before selling their honey. Without the limit, the Agriculture Department said, 20
of the biggest beekeepers could reap a windfall of several million dollars.
But the producers found a loophole that allowed them to make more money. Conte came back again last year and persuaded his House colleagues to plug the loophole, which they did. And back came the producers, lobbying to get Conte's loan limit stricken from the law. Rejected by Agriculture
Secretary Richard E. Lyng, the American Honey Producers Association turned again to Capitol
In the closing hours of the session just before Christmas, they sweet-talked their way to success. Sens. John Melcher (D-Mont.) and David H. Pryor (D-Ark.) won approval of a cryptic insertion in the budget reconciliation act that wiped out the cap and allowed the biggest honey producers to get unlimited loans.
Lyng and his legislative operatives had opposed the change, but the new language rolled through a House-Senate conference committee. "This is a disgrace," Conte fumed when the bill hit the House floor for final approval.
He warned that the change would force the government to spend around $6 million to acquire more than 10 million pounds of surplus honey that the 15 largest producers were expected to forfeit after getting support loans made possible by the legislative tinkering.
USDA officials are uncertain
how much the changes will cost,
but they don't like it. "We never supported lifting the limitation, and we still don't," said Richard
W. Goldberg, the acting undersecretary for international and commodity affairs.
There are other last-minute surprises that the department dislikes in the budget-reconciliation bill and the massive continuing resolution that funds USDA programs for this fiscal year.
Among them is language that directs Lyng to buy $10 million worth of sunflower oil for export as a way of helping the relative handful of farmers in the upper Great Plains who grow sunflowers.
"I don't know how we're going to deal with this," Goldberg said. Lyng, formerly one of the country's biggest sunflower seed dealers, said he suspected the legislation would help seed dealers more than farmers.
The sunflower growers, who receive no federal subsidies, got their break after months of lobbying the House and Senate. Their champion, Sen. Quentin N. Burdick (D-N.D.), persuaded the Senate to adopt a program that would cost about $18 million.
Burdick had less luck when he led Senate conferees in meetings with the House. Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, balked at a new program and the compromise, one-time purchase order resulted.
Not that the government needs more cooking oil. The Agriculture Department's Commodity Credit Corp., with $47 million of vegetable oil on hand, already had planned to spend about $320 million more this year on oil for domestic and foreign use.