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Low-key senator achieved much

by Colman McCarthy
December 27, 1988, Tuesday, City Edition, December 27, 1988

WASHINGTON --

WASHINGTON - In his last days as a senator, John Melcher, the Montana Democrat, is tending to a final constituent service. It involves housing for two of his most loyal supporters, Abigail and Eddie. They are the office cats, a pair of golden-hair short-tailed Manxes that Melcher, the only veterinarian in Congress, has had as longtime companions.

Post-Senate life promises to be sunny for the cats - they'll end up in homes, not alleys. It will be fine, too, for Melcher. He leaves with achievements, not memories. His narrow defeat in November, after 12 years in the Senate and seven in the House, ends a career marked by consistent liberalism and free of the common Senate viruses, vanity and sophism.

His politics had little padding. He was a core-issue man, a farm-state senator who knew that agriculture should be as much about distributing food as growing it. In the current farm bill, the trade and food assistance sections originated with Melcher. In the last Congress, he pushed the Agricultural Aid and Trade Mission bill into law.

Melcher persisted with one argument: For both economic and moral reasons,effective distribution of food should be a major part of the nation's farm policies: "We Americans have food in massive oversupply," he said in 1985. "That oversupply has crushed farm prices. We must dispose of the surpluses inorder to strengthen prices, and we should dispose of them by feeding the starving and hungry overseas and the malnourished at home." Millions of Third World people who never heard of John Melcher are getting food because he worked to deliver it.

During the Reagan years when, club in hand, government officials ended the war on poverty and began a war on the poor, Melcher and other senators were forced into defensive legislation: working for amendments to keep thingsfrom worsening. One effort was typical. In the summer of 1986, some mid-levelnumbers people in the Reagan administration played with their calculators anddecided that $ 300-million should be transferred from African famine-relief programs and Food for Peace. The money would go to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica for unspecified economic-development programs. Melcher, seeing the transfer as a hustle to take money from the hungry of Africa to feed the Reagan-Elliott Abrams political agenda for Central America, led a 51-49 vote against the raid.

Such public-interest groups as Bread for the World found Melcher to be ever available and approachable. On coming to the House in 1969, he aligned himself with environmental groups then working to enact the first federal strip-mine legislation. Eight years would go by before a law passed, with Melcher and Rep. Morris Udall, D-Ariz., as two of the leaders.

Melcher's availability showed in personal traits. In 1983, a group of Catholic sisters in Washington raised money to provide a day shelter for homeless women. A Sunday afternoon ceremony was planned for the opening. Because it was a shelter for women that was to be staffed by women, it was thought that women members of Congress should be asked to attend.

Invitations went out. Someone of egalitarian bent suggested that perhaps one male politician ought to be invited. Melcher, who had a daughter who worked with homeless women in Tucson, was chosen.

That Sunday afternoon, at Rachel's Women Center, none of the women members of Congress showed up. Melcher, accompanied by his wife, did.

He spent much of the afternoon in the living room and kitchen talking with poor women. He donated money when he left, and told the Catholic sisters to call him or his staff when they needed help extracting food stamp or Social Security benefits for the women.

As a Western liberal, Melcher was part of a long line of progressives sent by Montanans to Washington: Jeannette Rankin, Thomas Walsh, Lee Metcalf,Mike Mansfield. Last month, Feminists For Life, a Kansas City, Mo., group, issued a report on Senate voting records.

Three categories - anti-war, anti-abortion and economic justice-were examinedfor what the feminists called "the consistent life vote." On 15 bills or amendments, Melcher scored 100 - the only senator to be 15 for 15. Not that the American left especially wants to notice, but Melcher's opposition to abortion belies the comfortable stereotype that it's only the fanatical rightthat is pro-life. What's liberal, he asks the left, about destroying the unborn?

John Melcher's work in the Senate benefited farmers, miners, the elderly,the hungry and a constituency of the world's poor. If all those who had been helped by him - from Washington's homeless women to the Bangladesh starving -could have voted in Montana, he would always have run unopposed.

Washington Post Writers Group

St. Petersburg Times