Despite the mixed reviews his new economic plan is receiving, President Clinton certainly deserves a big round of applause for one particularly controversial part of it.
We're referring to the part that calls for eliminating the subsidized loans provided by the Rural Electrification Administration.It can't have been easy for Clinton to make this proposal, coming as he does from a rural state where 20 non-profit electric cooperatives have borrowed $705 million from the REA at discounted rates to light up Arkansas' back country.
Moreover, by taking aim at the REA, Clinton put himself in company with a couple of the most frequent targets of his criticism - George Bush and Ronald Reagan. They, too, think the REA should be cut off at the knees.
Though big cutbacks or even the outright demise of the REA would not make a big dent in the $340 billion federal deficit, the fact remains that the agency has outlived its usefulness and ought to go.
There would be no controversy over the Clinton proposal if it were not for the cowardice of Congress in the face of the political clout the REA purchases with the taxpayers' money.
When the REA was created in 1935 and assigned to bring them power, only 12 percent of the nation's farms had electricity. But now nearly every rural area has power, telephones and even cable television.
Originally, the rural areas served by the REA were generally low-income communities whose populations did not exceed 1,500. But as time went by, those areas grew and prospered. As a result, cheap REA loans are now providing subsidized power not just to poor farmers but also to industrial users and comfortable suburbanites, including residents of cities as large as 100,000.
Even though its work is done, the REA lingers on - providing two and five percent subsidized loans even to electric co-ops serving posh resorts and affluent suburbs. This year the REA is expected to make $1.9 billion in direct and guaranteed loans to about 2,000 rural electric and telephone cooperates in 46 states. The taxpayers will pick up 14 percent of the cost, enabling the subsidized co-ops to provide electricity more cheaply than investor-owned utilities.
How much longer will Congress let this travesty persist before it finally shuts down an agency that, having completed its assignment, should have gone out of business long ago?