Could Congress learn a lesson from its history?

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Some things never change: In 1981, the White House and Congress were locked in a farm bill fight the likes of which no one had seen before. On one side was an overwhelmingly Democratic House and Senate that wanted more active federal policies on export embargoes, target prices and dairy support prices.

They easily had the votes to write any law they wanted. On the other side stood Congress’s only hurdle to enact that strategy, the newly-elected, very popular president, Ronald Reagan. He wanted fewer farm programs, fewer costs and, as many farm groups came to believe later, fewer farmers.

The fight centered on (it seems almost quaint now) the estimated $11 billion cost of the proposed four-year law. The Senate version, according to White House bean counters, was $100 million too tall; the House, $1 billion too much.

No vote

As the stand-off squared off, Thomas S. Foley, a Democratic congressman from Spokane, Wash., announced he wouldn’t vote for any farm bill, no matter its author, unless it included a sugar program, a key price-support law the 1977 farm bill had killed after a productive, 40-year legislative life.

Foley wasn’t just anybody; he was the newly elected House Majority Whip, just two rungs down the ladder from Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr.

Moreover, Foley had given up the chairmanship of the House Ag Committee to take the leadership post. Did his holdout for a sugar program mean the Speaker would fight the White House to include sugar in the farm bill?

No, said Foley; he had not raised the issue with the speaker. Wow. Wasn’t this more and worse trouble for an already troubled farm bill?

Sugar program

Maybe, but eastern Washington state farmers need a sugar program and so does the nation, he explained in a firm voice with eyes locked on me. Foley was in Kansas City to speak to a big pork producers meeting; I was there to cover it.I ran into him into him pacing beneath the grandstands while waiting to go onstage to explain the Washington, D.C. sausage machine to folks who loved sausage, knew machinery but distrusted Washington.

His no-sugar, no-vote ultimatum was big news that I passed on quickly to my editors. Now it’s a forgotten footnote, just an anecdote.

Price support

But the sugar program isn’t. Foley, a tall, gray-haired man with warm eyes, stayed true to his word; he only voted for the compromise 1981 farm bill after it included a new sugar price support program. The bill passed the House on a 205-203 vote with his vote the deciding difference.

Candy makers and cheap food advocates immediately announced the end of the world. Farmers laughed and said the law would favor them, producers, over production because it was a tax-free way to ensure U.S. sweetener supplies while not drowning America and American farmers in nickel-a-pound sugar imports.More than 30 years later, it’s still the law — surprise — the world is still around, too. So is a U.S. sweetener sector.

In fact, Foley’s holdout for sugar supports also provided a price umbrella for the corn sweetener industry to blossom, then bloom.

Foley rose to become Speaker in 1989, then, five years later, was swept out of office with the Gingrich tide. On Oct. 19, he died, in Washington, D.C. He was 84.Final act. In his last act as speaker, on Nov. 29, 1984, Foley handed the his gavel over to his long-time political foe but great friend, Robert Michel, the retiring Republican leader, so Michel could command the House just once in his long legislative career.

It was the first time a Republican held the speaker’s dais in 40 years. Think any of this could occur in Congress today without more of the endless babbling demagogy that has trapped the 2012, not-very-good farm bill in the House for two years? Not a chance.

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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