Farm Forecast: Aid, with 32.3 Billion in Scattered Dollars

National Journal, June 24, 2000

"Hello, sports fans, and welcome to National Journal's 'SportsDesk Live.' I'm your host, Jarat N. Hanouch--"

"--and I'm your co-host, J.C. Chura--"

"--and today we'll be looking at one of everybody's favorite Washington games, farmball."

"That's right, Jarat. And what a game we've had lately! I've been watching reformers battle farmers for years, and I have to tell you, it's been one hot contest lately."

"J.C., how about that wool and mohair match?"

"Jarat, this match may be small, but if you want to understand farmball, this is where you want to be. Back in the early 1950s, the Pentagon worried about not having enough domestic wool for its uniforms. So in 1954, Congress created a wool subsidy, and mohair came along for the ride."

"J.C., I'd better mention that mohair is the fleece of the Angora goat. It's produced mainly in Texas--also our biggest wool state, by the way."

"Right, Jarat. And believe me, in farmball you don't want to cross a Texan. Right now, both the chairman and the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee are Texans, and Texas has just been a superpower in this game since the get-go."

"J.C., didn't the reform team score a big win on this one in '93?"

"They sure did. Though the Pentagon switched to synthetics in 1960, the program went on and on, spending almost $200 million in some years, until, in 1993, the reformers threw a 'Hail Mary' pass. Congress was passing a big anti-deficit package that year, and the Senate was determined to show it could eliminate at least one program. Well, the Senate killed the subsidy. House-Senate conferees restored it, but the Senate wouldn't back off, and the wool program was repealed."

"A little program, J.C., but still a big day. Government programs get killed about twice in a century. But farmball is never over till it's over, is it?"

"Right, Jarat. In the 1996 farm bill, the wool team made a fast side play and got Congress to create a National Sheep Industry Improvement Center. Then the mohair team got some interest-free loans. And then just last month, on May 25, Congress passed a farm-aid bill that tucked in about $11 million in direct subsidies for wool and mohair."

"Nice move there, J.C. They brought that sucker right back from the dead."

"Well, that's right, Jarat, but bear in mind that the reform team had already moved the whole game down field. This new subsidy is small compared with the old one, and it's authorized for just a year. The wool and mohair folks say it's one-time disaster relief that will just help them hang on by their fingernails. Wool and mohair prices are low, warehouses are overflowing, and out in Texas some counties are in their fifth or sixth year of drought. It's rough out there."

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