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COLUMN ONE : Is U.S. Stuck With Honey Subsidies? : Officials feel farm lobby's sting every time they try to cut the tiny program. Fight illustrates why it is so difficult for the government to eliminate anything from the budget.

March 21, 1993|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WOODVILLE, Miss. — Thousands of bees are buzzing about the old warehouse that serves as their winter home, but Richard Adee and his workers pay no mind as they go about their business in shirt-sleeves. Walking outside with an air of confidence and no protective gear, Adee pierces a virtual wall of bees in the doorway as if they weren't there.

"You get stung every once in a while, but you get used to them," he observes matter-of-factly.

Adee, the largest beekeeper and honey producer in the world, son of a beekeeper and father of two more, knows how to deal with bees: You just breed the aggression out of them.

Adee can deal with Washington too. He is just as much at home within the corridors of Congress, sitting through hour after hour of arcane subcommittee hearings, as he is among his hives. You just learn to work the right levers.

Adee has had to learn. The federal government paid Adee and his sons $110,000 last year to keep bees and produce honey. That makes Adee Honey Farms by far the largest single beneficiary of the Agriculture Department's honey subsidy--one of the smallest but most controversial and ridiculed government programs around.

The Clinton Administration is bound and determined to kill it. The honey subsidy is the only spending program that candidate Bill Clinton promised to completely eliminate during last year's presidential campaign, and it remains one of the very few that President Clinton has proposed to eliminate as part of the economic plan he has presented to Congress.

But expert politician and master salesman that he is, Clinton may have met his match in Adee. Honey subsidies have been under incessant attack from critics of government waste for most of the last decade. Adee, president of the American Honey Producers Assn., has even been singled out for scathing criticism in speeches on the floor of the House. Yet the subsidy lives on.

"If we can't kill this program, what can we cut?" asked an exasperated Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.).

Good question. In fact, the saga of the honey subsidy offers telling insight into why it is so difficult for the federal government to ever really eliminate anything.

And it may help explain why many in Washington are not yet convinced that Congress will enact specific spending cuts this year, despite all the brave talk about adding even bigger reductions than those in Clinton's economic plan.

It may be a tiny program not worthy of White House attention, but Clinton and his advisers think it is silly to throw $16 million a year of taxpayer money at a bunch of beekeepers, and they don't mind saying so.

"When we were putting the (President's) plan together, there were no defenders of the honey program in the room," Alice Rivlin, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, dryly observed.

Clinton is not the first President to take aim at Adee and his fellow beekeepers. During the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations, there were times when it looked like the subsidy was a goner. In 1985, Reagan eliminated it from his budget. In 1990, the Senate voted to kill the program outright. In 1987, Adee had to move to a motel just outside Washington for 17 weeks while Congress debated the program's future.

The subsidy survived every time.

It outlasted its most vocal critic, the late Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.), who delivered colorful anti-honey speeches on the House floor, attacking Adee by name. (Conte died in 1991.)

It outlasted Richard G. Darman, director of the Bush Administration Office of Management and Budget, and former Agriculture Secretary Clayton K. Yeutter, both of whom tried in vain to slash the subsidy.

It survived a highly critical report by the General Accounting Office, which concluded that the subsidy was not needed to ensure pollination of major American crops--the prime justification cited by honey producers to generate congressional support.

The implications for Clinton and the deficit hawks in his Administration are clear: It is one thing to advocate reduced spending in the abstract, but it is quite another to support the elimination of specific programs that benefit key constituents--or for that matter, to vote against the pet programs of other powerful lawmakers whose support may be needed on other issues.

To make such votes palatable, supporters come up with lots of reasons to keep each and every existing program in the federal budget. Supporters of the honey program have plenty of arguments.

Without subsidies, they say, the U.S. beekeeping industry will cease to exist. Valuable crops such as California almonds will not be pollinated properly. China's beekeepers will take over the U.S. honey market.

Here's the show-stopper: If the subsidy is killed, advocates insist, the nation's best defense against Africanized honeybees, known as killer bees, will die with it.

"Beekeepers could breed the aggression out of those African bees," Adee said.

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