Remembering the Wool Act 25 Years After Its DeathThe loss of the Wool Act wasn’t quite the death knell some predicted for the American sheep industry; it didn’t start the decline of the American sheep population or the subsequent wool clip, for instance. But there’s little doubt that a decision by the U.S. Senate and one signature from President Bill Clinton made life for America’s sheep producers a whole lot more difficult.
Fortunately, the industry survived.
“We lost some people in the sheep industry when we lost the Wool Act, there’s no doubt about that,” said former ASI president and Wyoming producer Jim Magagna. “But I think we’re stronger today because we don’t have it. Personally, I think that any part of agriculture that can be weaned off of these types of programs – other than necessary disaster programs – is better off in the long run.
“But that’s a tough thing to say because there were times in the past when people I knew in the industry wouldn’t have survived without the Wool Act. Some producers had become dependent on those checks. But now, there’s a whole new generation of sheep producers who don’t even remember it. With what they made on their wool this year, they probably wouldn’t have gotten much from those government checks anyway.”
HISTORY OF THE WOOL ACTSheep have been a part of American history since long before the United States even came into existence. Brought to the new land by European explorers, the animals played a role in providing food and fiber to those living on the continent. The sheep population exploded and the wool was used heavily in American manufacturing. It wasn’t until World War II and the Korean War that the country found itself running low on the precious material. The National Wool Act was instituted in 1954 and offered price support to sheep producers based on a percentage of their market sales. The Eisenhower administration created the program instead of implementing tariffs on imported wools. This meant that “the more wool they produced, the more federal funding they received,” according to an early 1990s U.S. Department of Agriculture study on eliminating the act.
“Although the program adds handsomely to large producers’ incomes, its appeal has not been strong enough to prevent a dramatic decline in domestic wool production,” the report continued. “According to the General Accounting Office, the amount of wool sheared has plummeted from 283 million pounds in 1955 to 89 million in 1988. In addition, it has failed to stimulate domestic production and acts as a lightning rod for public criticism of government spending.”
That final statement – “a lightning rod for public criticism of government spending” – was ultimately the final straw for the Wool Act.
Magagna remembers some media coverage of the Wool Act at the time, but this was back when CNN was the only 24-hour news channel and before anyone in agriculture had even heard of the Internet. Social media didn’t exist at all. And still, the Wool Act garnered plenty of attention among government watchdogs and spending hawks.
“Does Mary have a little lamb? Then Mary gets a government check,” Jonathan Rauch wrote in the National Journal in May 1991. He went on to portray the program as one that benefitted few despite a $100 million price tag each year. He did, however, point out a key difference in the Wool Act when compared to other subsidy programs.
“Most farm programs were designed, more or less, to be income stabilizers,” Rauch wrote. “Generally speaking, the more the farmer gets per bushel or per pound from the market, the less he gets from the government. The wool and mohair program, on the other hand, was designed to stimulate production and sales, pure and simple.”
THE END OF THE WOOL ACTMedia criticism of the Wool Act emboldened Senators Richard Bryan (Nev.), Harry Reid (Nev.), John Kerry (Mass.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.) to attempt elimination of the Wool Act in the annual appropriation’s bill. On July 26, 1993, the Senate agreed to their amendment to eliminate Wool Act funding.
The U.S. House of Represenatives, however, pushed back on behalf of the sheep industry with Kika de La Garza (Texas) and Joe Skeen (N.M.) leading the charge to maintain wool funding. A historic Senate vote on Sept. 23, 1993, failed to defeat the amendment by Bryan, Reid and Feingold. That vote set the stage for a new political strategy: the best course was for the House to seek a three-year phase-out rather than immediate loss of payments to sheep producers. Ensuing action in October 1993 sent that language to the White House for approval.
“I had just been in Washington, D.C., and was told they weren’t going to do anything with it,” recalled former ASI President and longtime sheep producer Pierce Miller. “I got off a plane in San Angelo, Texas, and found out that we’d lost it. When you’re talking about government programs like the Wool Act, there are always going to be people who want to take potshots at it. I know they went to a lot of trouble to single out some producers with large operations because they were the ones collecting the largest checks.”
The Wool Act was an easy target for the Clinton administration.
“In February of 1993, I sent to the Congress A Vision of Change for America, the budget document accompanying my economic reform program. Among the recommendations were reforms in the wool and mohair program; subsidies provided for nearly 40 years to wool and mohair producers when materials for uniforms and gloves were deemed by the Federal Government as ‘strategic materials.’ Although the Department of Defense determined by 1960 that wool was no longer a strategic material, the subsidies continued. It would have been unthinkable to engage in an across-the-board effort to reduce the deficit – as we did in the beginning of our administration – and not seek changes in this program,” Clinton said in signing S.1548, the bill the killed the Wool Act. “This legislation reduces the deficit by $514 million over fiscal years 1994 to 1998.”
While the federal budget looked better in the long run, sheep numbers (and thus, wool production) continued to fall in the years after the Wool Act. Payments were phased out through a couple of years, but by 1996 they were gone completely.
American wool production dropped from 63.5 million pounds greasy in 1995 to 56.7 million pounds in 1996 and has fallen steadily from there. In 2017, that total was just 24.7 million pounds.
“Tens of thousands of operations left the business, and several million ewes were sold to slaughter with the elimination of the Wool Act,” said ASI Executive Director Peter Orwick, whose family-run operation in South Dakota was also affected by the act’s demise.
NEW PROGRAMS FOR THE INDUSTRYWhile the Wool Act disappeared, supporters in Washington looked for other ways to help the sheep industry. They created the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center – which offers grant money for projects designed to further industry interests. The Wool Trust followed, and provides funding to ASI to support the marketing of American wool in the global market.
“Those programs came out of the failure of the Wool Act,” Miller said. “My part of Texas is sheep and goat country, and it was hit hard by the loss of the Wool Act, which included mohair. I’ve seen this area switch from Rambouillet sheep and Angora goats to a lot of hair sheep since the Wool Act disappeared. But we’ve still got wool sheep, too. It wasn’t easy for those of us who stayed in the business, but we survived.”