It normally would be hard to find a common thread in the plight of the B-2 bomber, which a House panel this week voted to abolish, and the plight of the honeybee. But the politics of 1990 have provided one.
The debate over the 1990 farm bill has turned up a little-known fact: The government once deemed the survival of the bee, not unlike the Bee-2, vital to U.S. national security. The same was true, improbably, of the sheep.
These farm creatures had a field day in World War II, when honey was a substitute for sugar, which was rationed, and beeswax was used to waterproof war equipment. Sheep's wool, meanwhile, was used in military uniforms. The two won subsidies so generous that a distant cousin of the sheep -- the Angora goat, whose mohair never became a "strategic material" -- got to partake of them.
It is worth pausing here to pay homage to the Cold War and the permeating impression it leaves on our country: not just on the military, but on things as far-flung as goat, sheep and bee subsidies, tax loopholes, interstate highways and more -- all authorized by the government in the name of stopping communism.
Needless to say, creatures that bleat, baa and buzz no longer are mainstays of the struggle for freedom. Honey ceased to be "war-essential" after World War II. Wool was dropped in 1960. A 1989 Congressional Research Service paper observed: "The U.S. military is now more important to the domestic wool industry than is the domestic industry to the military."
Still, all have held fast to their federal support programs, coming up with peaceful rationales when warmongering ones failed. Agriculture Department records show that in 1989, one Texas rancher received $570,000 in wool and mohair payments.
This tale dates to World War II. America's bees were in overdrive then, producing honey and beeswax for the troops and the masses. The end of the war brought a honey glut. Beekeepers buzzed plaintively around the House Agriculture Committee, which responded in 1949 with subsidies to maintain "a bee population in the United States capable of doing the pollinating job."
The program was supposed to be temporary; it was predicted that farmers would one day pay beekeepers for the use of bees to pollinate their food and fiber crops. But 31 years later, the program survives, costing $184 million this year, according to the Agriculture Department.
"This program serves little public purpose but to raise the income of a relatively few producers," the General Accounting Office reported recently.
Wool had a similar history. By 1953, with the Cold War raging, domestic wool production was sagging. War planners warned that the country produced only half the wool the Army would need in a replay of World War II. Then came the National Wool Act of 1954: "It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress as a measure of national security and in promotion of the general economic welfare" that wool needs federal subsidies.
The declaration did not mention mohair, but it got into the support program anyway, over the personal opposition of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, because the Texas-based industry was hurting and had powerful supporters.
The Pentagon dropped wool from its strategic materials list in 1960 without explanation. But the wool and mohair lobby has proved expert at changing rationales with the times.
During the energy crisis, in 1977, wool was designated an "energy-efficient commodity." A congressional farm expert also observed that, like many farm subsidies, the wool program is viewed as essential to a way of life.
All of this politicking might have been instructive to those hoping to save the B-2, had not the politics of runamok deficits dragged even the honey, wool and mohair crowds to the 1990 chopping block.
The Senate voted to phase out the honey program -- which is to some beekeepers what the B-2 is to Northrop -- and both houses have voted small curbs on the wool and mohair program.
"The honey-moon is over!" declared Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.) in an uproarious attack on the honey program.
Interestingly, one of honey's defenders, House Agriculture Committee Chairman E "Kika" de la Garza (D-Tex.), tried to play it off against none other than the B-2: "Good gosh, the honey program! They had . . . toilet seats in the B-2s that cost more than the honey program."
And some have said that doing in honey, wool and mohair without reforming overall farm policy would be comparable to installing cheaper toilets in the B-2 and leaving the rest of the bomber intact. Still, critics have suggested that bees have an option the B-2 obviously doesn't.
Said Rep. Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.): "We are only saying to this wonderful creature of God's world of nature, we believe you can fly on your own."