The Wall Street Journal
Copyright (c) 1990, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
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

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

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?