Washington. -- Well, they've finally made me an advocate of ruthless welfare reform -- I mean for wiping out total programs without tears. I'm talking about the myriad federal schemes in which outrageous and incredible subsidies are given to the richest people and companies in America.
Sharon LaFraniere reported in the Washington Post about the Agriculture Department's Market Promotion Program, which spends hundreds of millions of dollars helping some of the most prosperous businesses in America to hawk their wares overseas. Some corporate giants, it seems, are taking handouts from Uncle Sam in ways and amounts that make Ronald Rea- gan's "welfare queen" seem like a relative saint.
M&M;/Mars, producer of Snickers, Milky Way and Mars bars and those heavenly little chocolate pellets, has had a sweet deal with the Agriculture Department. This company, closely held by some of the fattest billionaires in this area, got a subsidy of $785,000 from the government last year. There's no way that I can understand why a prosperous company with an annual advertising budget of $272.4 million needs a handout from the Agriculture Department.
Mars spokesman James E. Conlan is quoted as saying, "The analogy is to a mortgage deduction; if it's there, you take it."
This is precisely what Franklin D. Roosevelt called "entrenched greed."
The truth is that this "corporate welfare" isn't just "there" for the taking. The program was begun by Ronald Reagan as a sop to his rich friends, even at a time when Mr. Reagan was cursing "welfare cheats" and admonishing TV networks not to run sob stories about hungry families in "South Succotash."
This wealth welfare was started in a time of suffering for millions of poor and middle-income people, and when the rivers of red ink were becoming floods across the economic landscape.
The corporate freeloaders are numerous. Since 1986, the huge Dole Food Co. has doubled revenues and enjoyed $570 million in profits, but in the same period it has taken almost $15 million from Uncle Sam to help it sell its pineapples, nuts, other fruits and vegetables overseas.
While all elements of our society are cracking down on the use of tobacco products here, this crazy Agriculture Department program has given $650,000 to a cigarette factory in Turkey on grounds that it helps the export of U.S. tobacco.
The Mars spokesman suggests it's just a passive exercise in which huge firms see subsidies lying around, and they pick them up. The truth is that American corporations lobby furiously for these shameful handouts, and they do their best to destroy congressmen who oppose such federal giveaways.
Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer, D-Pa., described these corporate raids on the treasury as meritless, and he tried to curtail the subsidies. He was not re-elected. Sen. Wyche Fowler Jr., D-Ga., vigorously opposed the grant to the Turkish cigarette factory. He lost his re-election bid.
Most politicians from agricultural states see great merit in Uncle Sam paying for the advertising of their oranges, peanuts, tangelos, macadamia nuts, raisins, bourbon or barley in foreign markets. They don't give a damn whether hugely profitable companies need your and my money, or the subsidy is going into the pockets of lobbyists and corporate fat cats.
I hope it shocks President Clinton to learn that his proposed budget for 1994 includes $147 million for these silly subsidies.
Supporters of this welfare for the super rich are incredibly glib in their claims of the jobs produced or the other "great benefits to the nation." But these treasury-raiders never seem to see the national benefits of Uncle Sam guaranteeing some food, shelter and medical care for millions of needy Americans.
Our first step in reforming our welfare programs must be to take away the obscene handouts for the rich.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.