The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, August 8, 1990
How to Think Like a Congressman
By James Bovard

The recent farm bill debate provided insight into the intellects of 535 people with vast power over the nation's economic destiny -- the U.S. Congress. For example, the cost to consumers of farm programs is a controversial issue, since federal policies drive U.S. sugar, dairy and peanut prices to double or triple world prices. Rep. Neal Smith (D., Iowa) declared, "The way to determine whether or not prices of food that are from price-supported commodities are high is to go to the grocery store and compare them with those products that are not processed from price-supported products."

Mr. Smith then whipped out a five-pound bag of sugar from a grocery bag on the House floor and announced that the sugar cost $1.79. Next he pulled out a package of cat food, which weighed only two pounds and four ounces, yet cost $2.83. Noticing some doubt among his listeners, Mr. Smith announced, "But here is another one," and judiciously contrasted the price of a five-pound bag of wheat flour ($1.39) and a five-pound package of chicken manure ($2.89). Since subsidized sugar is cheaper than unsubsidized cat food, and subsidized flour cheaper than unsubsidized chicken droppings, farm programs cannot be hurting consumers.

Rep. Ron Marlenee (R., Mont.) had a more refined proof of the success of the sugar program: "Here's a bag of kitty litter. It costs 49.75 cents per pound. Here's a bag of American produced sugar. It costs 37.25 cents per pound. Here is a bag of charcoal brickets. The cost of this product is 57 cents per pound. Sugar is cheap -- cheaper than those products the consumer is willing to burn up or litter on."

There was hot debate over a proposal by Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and Reps. Dick Armey (R., Texas) and Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) to limit federal handouts to wealthy farmers. Several congressmen considered the suggestion suspiciously akin to communism. Rep. Robin Tallon (D., S.C.) warned, "We do not have to imagine what life would be like without a responsible farm program. We need only look to the Soviet Union where people will wait in line for hours in hopes that they can buy a small portion of beef or bread." Rep. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.): "This effort to end participation of our most successful farmers and investors in the farm programs sounds a lot like the way the Poles and Russians organized their agricultural policy before the Berlin Wall came down."

The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Kika de la Garza (D., Texas), urged his fellows to reject the Armey-Schumer proposal by appealing, like an ancient Roman senator, to his personal integrity: "Can Members imagine a shoe-shine boy from Mission, Texas, being accused of protecting the rich and the greedy?" Mr. de la Garza neglected to mention that, since 1987, he has received over $100,000 in campaign contributions and over $20,000 in honorariums from agricultural lobbies and organizations.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) called up his full mental arsenal to raze Sen. Reid's amendment to end handouts to farms with gross sales over $500,000. Mr. Conrad began by noting that the Department of Agriculture kept statistics on farms with $50,000 in sales and above, and then launched into an intellectual triple-jump: "$50,000 may sound like a lot of money. Typically, net farm income is less than 50% of net cash returns, meaning that these so-called wealthiest farmers are those with net incomes of less than $25,000 a year. Let me just say that $25,000 a year may be a decent living, but it certainly is not wealthy by the standards of almost any other industry." In reality, farms targeted by the Reid amendment had an average income in 1988 of not $25,000 but $790,721.

Similarly, Rep. Thomas Coleman (R., Mo.) required only two sentences to prove that no farmers in Missouri were rich. Mr. Coleman derided the notion of "these so-called millionaire farmers self-appointed critics say are on the Federal dole. Well, in my state of Missouri, as of 1988, there were 113,000 farmers with an average size of 269 acres. If you are making a million dollars on 269 acres, then you're not growing a legal crop!" It apparently did not occur to the seven-term congressman that, if 269 acres was the average size of a Missouri farm, perhaps some farms in his state are larger than 269 acres.

Much of the hostility to the Reid-Armey-Schumer proposals came from a belief that congressmen must personally control American agriculture, or else markets would collapse. Mr. Roberts exclaimed, "How on earth do we control the supply of corn and rice and wheat . . . when we exclude the very folks who are most successful in producing that food?" Rep. Jerry Huckaby (D., La.) insisted, "What we try to do with these farm programs is to pay farmers not to plant. We try to control 'supply and demand."' Some farm state congressmen warned that if government failed to control supplies, prices would fall; others warned that they would rise. Rep. Bill Emerson (R., Mo.) suggested that both things would happen: crop prices would fall while retail prices somehow increased.

Congressmen repeatedly implied that if government ceased paying farmers to idle 60 million acres a year, markets would become so destabilized that farmers would not plant any crops. Mr. Emerson announced, "As the ranking member of the House Select Committee on Hunger, I take the threat of an unreliable food supply very seriously." Rep. Jim Lightfoot (R., Iowa) asserted: "If this (Armey-Schumer) amendment passes, we will start to see prices escalate at the grocery store. . . . The bottom line is that it will cost 10, 20, 30 times more than what this particular farm program costs to the American taxpayer." Apparently, unless government continues paying farmers not to plant wheat each year, the price of bread will soar to $50 a loaf.

Many congressmen prophesied that, if the U.S. stopped paying big farmers not to plant, U.S. agricultural exports would plummet. Rep. Wally Herger (R., Calif.) warned: "This will greatly decrease the ability of American agriculture to compete in international markets in the future." Foreigners would, you see, buy fewer American crops at a low price than at a high price. On Aug. 1, the House wrangled for hours over a proposal by Rep. Silvio Conte (R., Mass.) to limit government aid to $250,000 per farmer. Rep. Charles Stenholm (D., Texas) intoned that the Conte amendment would change "the philosophy and direction of farm programs," and Mr. Marlenee accused Mr. Conte of being "anti-farm." Limiting farmers' maximum annual handout to 500 times that given to the average food stamp recipient would, in the words of Mr. Emerson, "throw many of our rural communities into economic upheaval."

Sen. Larry Pressler (R., N.D.) was concerned about the burden of idled acreage on American farmers, declaring that the U.S. set-asides "have given an unfair advantage to foreign competitors who receive crop subsidies that do not hinge on the idling of cropland." Mr. Pressler's solution was not for the U.S. to stop paying American farmers not to plant, but for the U.S. government to engineer an international cartel-like agreement where all major producers idle farmland in order to inflate world grain prices.

Judging from these astute observations, many congressmen would have difficulty managing a school lunch program, much less controlling the nation's food supply. The question that arises from a study of congressional intellects at work is: How much more "kitty litter logic" can America stand?