WASHINGTON — In years past, Ellen Haas, a consumer advocate, warred with the Reagan Administration over cuts in child nutrition programs. She battled the American Farm Bureau's opposition to creating a federal consumer protection agency. She fought food processors' efforts to loosen food safety laws.
But now, as the House begins voting on a wide-ranging farm bill this week, Haas' consumer group--Public Voice--is linking arms with all of those erstwhile adversaries to oppose the legislation's dairy, peanut and sugar programs. "Considering the past, it's kind of an unholy alliance," she conceded.
Haas' marriage of convenience with her former adversaries is only one example of the way this year's battle over farm policy is reshaping the traditional political landscape--and confounding the outlook for this year's farm bill. So directly do the nation's arcane agricultural programs now affect urban Americans, big business and the economy as a whole that an issue once dominated by a small, relatively unified farm lobby is now the subject of a fierce--and distinctly chaotic--legislative donnybrook.
In the old days, when farm bills went to the House and Senate floors, the shots were called by entrenched alliances among the general farmer organizations--the Farm Bureau, the National Farmers Union, the National Grange--and individual commodity groups such as wheat growers and milk producers.
This year, however, with economic depression battering much of the Farm Belt and runaway federal deficits forcing Congress to review its expensive 50-year-old policy of limiting agricultural production and propping up farm prices, the old coalitions have been shattered. Beyond that, agribusiness interests, rump farmer groups and consumer organizations are now contending as never before and, in place of the old alliances, there is a plethora of new alignments like Haas'.
"We all share an economic belief," she said of the group she belongs to, that federally guaranteed price floors for farm products punish food buyers, crop exporters and taxpayers. "And we see an imbalance that needs to be changed. I think of this as a reform coalition."
Untested in Battle
Inevitably, though, such newly minted partnerships are untested in battle. And their composition can change with each issue. The result is an enormously unstable outlook only days before the Sept. 30 expiration of the law that governs the nation's agricultural programs, which vary from price supports to soil conservation to international food aid.
Unless new programs are enacted or current policy is temporarily extended, the law reverts to New Deal-era legislation that nearly all parties agree would be extraordinarily expensive and almost certainly unworkable. So the likelihood is growing that Congress will extend current policy for a brief period until it can find a consensus.
"It's a mess. So many special interests have their finger in the pie, it's very difficult to see where things lie," said Michael Johnson, aide to House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.).
Many Achilles' Heels
Joseph Kinney, an agricultural consultant, agrees. "This legislation has so many Achilles' heels, you would have to question whether Congress can pass any bill," he said.
The farm debate significantly affects every American who eats and pays taxes, but it most directly concerns the nation's 2.2 million farmers and the 23 million people in related agricultural businesses.
The debate, this year more than ever, centers on a simple but extremely perplexing question: To what extent should the government, instead of the marketplace, control commodity prices and provide income to farmers?
Ever since the Great Depression, the government has sought to stabilize farmers' income and the nation's food supply by regulating production and price levels for many commodities and by guaranteeing farmers an income through direct cash subsidies.
An Unprecedented Downer
The farm programs have had their ups and downs for both taxpayers and farmers, but the last four years have been an unprecedented downer--soaring government costs ($50 billion compared to an original $11-billion estimate), plunging commodity exports, mounting crop surpluses, sliding farm land values and escalating farm debt.
The basic problem is that the programs, by establishing a price floor for farm products, are encouraging overproduction and pricing American crops out of fast-growing world markets.
Last January, President Reagan proposed a dramatic policy shift--a phase-out of price supports and income subsidies that would subject commodities to the "free-market" forces of supply and demand. Although farm prices would fall, it was argued, farmers would ultimately be better off because they could sell vastly more products overseas.