WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Mike Synar's little amendment, as the Oklahoma Democrat sees it, is intended only to recover for the taxpayers a realistic fee for the use of public grazing land. This same amendment, in the view of Republican James Hansen of Utah, would destroy the Western cattle business, ruin the environment and kill a great little industry.
Since this session of Congress began in January, we have heard some fine fat arguments over gun control, election reform, foreign aid and heaven knows what, but for a knockdown, drag-out, bar-the-doors slugfest, in which facts are thrown through the windows as bystanders cheer, nothing is likely to surpass the fight over grazing fees.
I would give you the facts if I could, but the facts are elusive. This is the best I can do. About 26,600 of the nation's 1.6 million cattle producers graze their herds on public lands. For this forage they currently pay the government a fee of $1.97 per animal unit month (AUM). An animal unit equals one cow or five sheep.
Congressman Synar thinks the current fee is too low. He calls it a ''sweetheart deal,'' benefiting big operators most of all. Grazing charges on private land now average about $9.22 per AUM, more than four times as much as the government's $1.97. By 1997, under his amendment, the fee would rise incrementally to $8.70. Two-thirds of the added revenue would go back to the states and localities.
The Oklahoman asks why these particular ranchers should be subsidized by the taxpayers. Over the past five years, he charges, these subsidies have ''chewed their way'' through $650 million in public funds. He speaks of a loss of $150 million a year of ''the taxpayers' money.''
Some of Mr. Synar's supporters, notably the National Taxpayers Union, have picked up that $650 million figure and used it as a palpable fact. It is not a fact. It is an estimate contrived mostly of blue smoke and mirrors, in which the fee per AUM on private land is multiplied by the 250 million acres of public land, less the estimated expense of smoke machines and floppy disks. Total: $650 million.
To hear the other side of the story is to get a completely different picture. Joe Skeen, R-N.M., charges that it is a ''wholesale distortion'' to regard the grazing system as a subsidy. ''Nothing,'' he says, ''could be further from the truth.''
Chester Atkins, D-Mass., a co-sponsor with Mr. Synar, asks rhetorically, is the program a subsidy? ''The answer to that is, very clearly, yes.''
Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., says pathetically that if the grazing fees are increased, you will hear the sound of small producers packing up and going out of business. Wally Herger, R-Calif., echoes the theme; he fears for 31,000 ''small family ranchers.'' Barbara Vucanovich, R-Nev., accuses Mr. Synar of being ''anti-family.'' Ron Marlenee, R-Mont., says Mr. Synar is ''anti-people.''
Mr. Synar's response is that not all of these small family ranchers are named Mom and Pop. Some of them are named Texaco, Getty Oil, David Packard (of Packard-Hewlett) and the Mormon Church. One Mom & Pop operator, leasing 41,000 acres, is Zenchiku Livestock of Japan. One lessee alone controls grazing rights on 5.2 million acres in Nevada, an area almost the size of Massachusetts.
Moreover, says Mr. Synar, and this is not disputed, hundreds of leaseholders treat their allotments as if the leases were taxi medallions in Manhattan. One profiteer in Kansas reportedly pays the government $20,000 in grazing fees and subleases his rights in Nevada for $120,000.
Tom Campbell, R-Calif., says it is ''patently unfair'' to compare the private and public fees per AUM. Ranchers who lease private land receive all kinds of services that the government does not provide on public land.
My own impression, formed from floor debate and from exaggerations on both sides, is that Mr. Synar has the better argument. Some marginal operators undoubtedly would be hurt by higher fees, but unless these ranchers are to be viewed as objects of public welfare, it is hard to justify what clearly is a subsidy in some degree.
The House voted 232-192 for Mr. Synar's amendment when it was offered on the Interior appropriation bill on June 25. Again on July 23, as an authorization, the amendment passed by 254-165. Soon it will be the Senate's turn for Westerners to take on the city slickers. Move the piano! Clear the saloon and send the girls upstairs! Grazeland cows are sacred cows, pardner, and this fight is getting rough.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.