Planned cuts in subsidy getting growers' goats Clinton targets Mohair producers

February 22, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It's enough to make an Angora goat breeder's hair stand on end: The Clinton administration has set its sights on the mohair subsidy.

It's not a big deal as federal programs go: $48.4 million in 1991, the last year for which complete figures are available. It doesn't affect a huge constituency, just 12,000 farmers scattered across the harsher parts of the country where little but goats and sheep can thrive.

But it is replete with all the passions and political difficulties engulfing various special interest groups and their representatives in Congress as they confront the Clinton list of 150 federal program cuts. This will be a particularly difficult time for politicians.

One of them will be Democratic Rep. E. "Kika" de la Garza, the Texas chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, who finds his state's mohair producers -- mostly in the dry hill country of central Texas -- under attack by a president of his own party.

He and other Democrats face a dilemma. They know that every cut inflicts some pain somewhere. There is much political pain in cost-capping a huge program like Medicare, eliminating "unnecessary" nuclear reactor research, stretching out funding of the atom-smashing Supercollider, reducing prison construction, terminating the Tennessee Valley Authority's fertilizer program or freezing the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Or mohair.

The subsidies date back to World War II, when the government wanted to encourage wool production for military uniforms. The mohair producers, suppliers of fine fiber to the luxury fashion industry, persuaded legislators that what was good for the shepherd and wool production was good for the goatherd and mohair.

Since then the programs have run in parallel, and are currently administered under the National Wool Act of 1954. The Clinton administration wants to put a $50,000 annual subsidy limit per farmer -- down from the current ceiling of $150,000, which drops to $125,000 next year -- on both mohair and wool, saving about $60 million a year, about two-thirds of that from wool subsidies.

The average mohair subsidy nationally in 1991, based on giving the farmer $2.475 for every pound of fiber he sold for the market price of $1.28, was just $4,000. But in Texas, where Angora farming is big business, the average was $13,700, a handy boost many goat farm incomes. Only 216 farmers in the nation got subsidies that year that exceeded the $50,000 ceiling proposed by Mr. Clinton.

Pierce Miller, a Texas rancher, who on a good year has exceeded the $50,000 in federal subsidies, said there was relief that the program was not totally axed.

"It's nice to start off with something positive," he said, but adds: "The reduction is going to be coming out of some of these fellows' pockets here. . . . Mohair has a tremendous rural economic impact in some of these lightly populated counties."

Nowhere more so than in Edwards County, where the county seat of Rocksprings (pop. 1,337) declares on its official letterhead that it is "The Angora Capital of the World," the local paper is the Texas Mohair Weekly, the junior and senior high school athletic teams are respectively the Billies and the Angoras.

There the impact of the cutback could be "dramatic," according to Mayor Herbert Gallegos, even talks of Rocksprings' becoming "a ghost town."

It probably won't, but its plight will hardly be understated as the ,, message is delivered to Washington.

Larry Meyers is the Washington representative of the American Sheep Industry, the national association for both wool and mohair producers. He expects to be wearing out his shoe leather on Capitol Hill in coming weeks. In fact, he opened his defense Friday at White House briefing given by Leon E. Panetta, director of management and budget.

He argues the mohair subsidy is paid from tariffs raised on imported wool. In 1954, the Eisenhower administration earmarked 70 percent of the tariffs from imported wool for subsidies to the domestic industry. Today less than 40 percent of tariffs are used as subsidies; the balance goes to the Treasury Department.

He also points out that reducing rural income is a peculiar way to get an economic stimulus, and his farmers aren't likely to take it lying down.

A committee aide, fearing he will be on the front line shortly and insisting on anonymity, said: "I would just as soon stay anonymous for as long as possible."

At the center of the the mohair subsidy storm is Representative de la Garza, the chairman of the House Agricultural Committee. Does he support Mr. Clinton and hurt his constituents? Or does he try to help his constituents and undermine a Democratic president?

It is a dilemma the many congressional members are about to face on many issues. Mr. de le Garza is buying time, simply promising the Clinton agricultural cuts, including the mohair subsidy, a fair hearing.

As one of his aides said: "In some ways agriculture got off very lightly in this budget. Unfortunately for the chairman, some of the things they chose to cut are programs that he feels strongly about. It was a lot easier to say, 'You can go to hell' to Ronald Reagan than it is to Bill Clinton."

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