You can't get rid

Gail Collins

July 30, 1993|By Gail Collins

THE U.S. Senate voted this week to eliminate the nation's ancient honeybee and mohair goat subsidies from the budget.

The issues now go to a conference committee, which is going to put them back.

"You can't completely get rid of a program that's been here for a long time," said a spokesman for Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

The good Senator Craig, who was named "Most Frugal Senator" by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation last year, is a vigorous opponent of any spending program that does not involve fuzzy animals.

You can't get rid. That's the problem here, folks.

Once a program is on the books, you cannot pry it out with a crowbar. Congress is like some manic great-aunt, presiding over boxes of used fudge thermometers and antique Christmas tinsel. Nothing can go!

"Well, the Senate eliminated the honey and wool subsidies in their bill. So what? Just because the House of Lords speaks doesn't mean people listen," said Jim Davis, the spokesman for the House Agriculture Committee.

Everything must stay! Certainly we cannot afford to eliminate the 126-year-old program that provides each member of the U.S. Senate, and the vice president, with one round-trip ticket to their home states each year.

These days, the senators have huge office budgets, paid for by you the taxpayer, to buy their plane tickets. This extra freebie dates back to another era, when travel took a long time, because people did it on horses.

But an attempt this year to wipe this $60,000 anachronism off the books failed miserably. You can't get rid.

Do you understand now why this place is getting so cranky? Congress is obsessed with the deficit, but they can't bear to give up anything they've already got. So the government winds up trapped, like the mosquito mummified in amber in that dinosaur movie.

They can hardly get an emergency flood relief program passed around here, let alone a national service program for high school graduates. No money.

And so life gets more and more frustrating, and the debates get nastier and nastier.

"We understand there are some members in Congress who would say yes to Mideast help, but no to Midwest help," snarled Rep. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., during the flood relief debate.

"We will have sympathy with those who are suffering," said Rep. John Myers, D-Ind., unsympathetically. "But this does add to the national debt. I remember when New York City said don't worry about the national debt . . . and we had to bail them out."

Now wait a minute. How did New York get mixed up in this? Nofair, congressmen. You aren't supposed to start kicking New York until the tax debate. That's when the guys from Montana and Wyoming get to announce that Pat Moynihan likes gas taxes because nobody in the state of New York drives a car.

Whaddabout them foreigners? Howcome he got? She gets more than me! Nofair! Nofair! The place is immobilized, kicking like a frustrated baby, constricted by 10 generations of honey subsidies and submarine construction programs.

The bee program is supposed to guarantee the American armed forces a constant supply of beeswax, a commodity our men in uniform need nearly as much as a constant supply of horseshoes.

The mohair program, likewise, was started during World War II, when the troops needed mohair for uniforms. It continues because our mohair industry is facing a terrible threat from overseas.

Nobody wants to buy mohair.

"We understand the mohair boys are working very hard to develop new markets in Siberia," said a supportive staff member of the House Agriculture Committee.

"Mohair is popular! I have a mohair sweater! It's my favorite one!" cried Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, defensively.

Mr. Smith represents part of San Angelo, Texas, the Mohair Capital of the World. He is a tight-fisted conservative who strongly supports cutting mass transit.

The rest of San Angelo is represented by a Democrat named Charles Stenholm. Mr. Stenholm was a very, very vigorous opponent of President Clinton's jobs bill, which was aimed at the cities and which Mr. Stenholm felt very strongly the nation could not afford.

He is also a very, very intense supporter of goat welfare.

The House Agriculture Committee, led by another Texan, has been working on the subsidy controversy. Eventually, Congress is expected to accept its compromise plan to eliminate the honey subsidy by the year 2000, and get the sheep and goats down to about $150 million a year.

"People are always picking on the small programs," complained Mr. Smith. Besides protecting the goat and wool subsidy, Mr. Smith is also an enthusiastic proponent of two humongous Texas-based public works boondoggles, the space station and the supercollider.

Otherwise, he's a complete fiscal conservative.

"I'm happy to defend the supercollider and the space station and mohair!" he said Tuesday. "Fiscal conservatives just believe in setting priorities. I happen to give a high priority to wool. And mohair. And the space station. And the supercollider."

Gail Collins wrote this for Newsday.

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