Congress, ending a program that maintained a foothold in federal budgets for 39 years, has voted to phase out agricultural subsidies for wool and mohair.
The $190 million-a-year program, along with the annual $16 million honeybee subsidy, was transformed by critics this year into a symbol of wasteful government spending. House and Senate votes Friday ended the wool and mohair program, while a Senate vote Thursday night halted honeybee payments for at least a year.
The legislation, which was sent to President Clinton, appears designed to satisfy the wool program's critics and ease the impact on sheep and goat ranchers. Ranchers will see their subsidy payments clipped by 25 percent for the 1994 marketing year and by another 25 percent in 1995. The program's underlying authority, the 1954 National Wool Act, would expire Dec. 31, 1995.
"This bill fully and completely repeals the wool act," House Agriculture Committee Chairman E "Kika" de la Garza (D-Tex.) said.
He and subcommittee chairman Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.) are longtime supporters. Their state receives about 86 percent of mohair payments and 26 percent of wool payments.
In a statement, de la Garza said "many agricultural producers" believe the program should be preserved, adding: "I share their frustrations with the often unfair criticisms leveled against these programs. But I have also come to the conclusion it is time to settle this issue once and for all."
At one point last summer it appeared the subsidy would survive. But Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), joined by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and others, renewed the attack on the subsidy, which Bryan called "one of the most outrageous and indefensible expenditures of public money."
Under the program, payments to each wool and mohair producer have been limited to $250,000.
The program began when Congress decided to cut U.S. dependence on foreign suppliers after the military ran short of wool for uniforms and glove liners during World War II and the Korean War. By 1960, the Defense Department said wool was not a strategic material.
But the wool act remained. Ranchers, who faced a postwar slump, prevailed on Congress to subsidize production of domestic wool and continue duties on imported wool. When demand for mohair also declined, Congress included Angora goats.
According to the report by Vice President Gore's National Performance Review, which recommended ending the subsidies, about half the beneficiaries received only $44 a year. But the top 1 percent of sheep ranchers garnered a quarter of the money, nearly $100,000 each.
"The national interest does not require this program," the Gore report said. "It provides an unnecessary subsidy for the wealthy."
The primary pressure against the subsidy grew out of the deficit-reduction debate and the push to find budget cuts to help offset spending on new programs.
Members of Congress are "all looking for places to cut" and the mohair and wool subsidy became "a bit embarrassing," especially to conservative Democrats such as Stenholm who also were calling for a balanced budget constitutional amendment and deeper cuts in domestic spending, said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
"It got to be increasingly embarrassing for people to support very narrow subsidies at a time when the budget is under contraction," said Donald F. Kettl, a University of Wisconsin at Madison professor and public policy specialist.
Support for the subsidies also eroded after the administration, through Gore's report on making the federal bureaucracy cost less and work better, "targeted them as obstacles to reinventing government," Kettl said.
A fresh spate of news accounts on the subsidies and their costs also fueled the debate, Kettl said. But Kettl and Thurber predicted Congress would have a hard time sustaining efforts to trim wasteful spending.
Easy hits on "pork-barrel" projects have faded over the years, Kettl said, while many new targets, such as the $11 billion Superconducting Super Collider, involve scientific and research issues, "an extra patina that makes it hard to break through."
Thurber said he doubts that the wool and mohair vote means Washington will change, especially when it comes to programs defended by special interests allied with influential members of Congress.
"Whether the lobbyists will back off and allow for cuts in popular programs is highly questionable," Thurber said.
The wool and mohair debate, Kettl said, should be valued most for serving an "important symbolic role."