A look back at Tom Foley's 1981 farm bill fight

Published online: Nov 05, 2013
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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 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 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.

As the stand-off squared off, Thomas S. Foley, a congressman from Spokane, Wash., announced he wouldn't vote for any farm bill unless it included a sugar program, a price-support law the 1977 bill had killed.

Foley was the newly elected House Majority Whip, just two rungs down the ladder from Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr.

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?

Maybe, but eastern Washington farmers need a sugar program and so does the nation, he explained.

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

But the sugar program isn't. Foley 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 and - 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.

In his last act as Speaker, on Nov. 29, 1994, Foley handed the his gavel over to his longtime political foe but great friend, Robert Michel, the retiring Republican leader, so Michel could command the House just once in his long legislative career.

Think any of this could occur in Congress today without more of the endless babbling demagogy that has trapped the 2012 farm bill in the House for two years?

Not a chance.

Alan Guebert's Farm File appears File appears Saturdays. Contact him at agcomm@farmandfoodfile.com or Alan Guebert, 21673 Lago Drive, Delavan, IL 61734. His website is www.farmandfoodfile.com.