Ag Disaster Bill Faces Storm of Opposition

Election year politics create interesting equation for including drought relief with hurricane emergency bill. Jacqui Fatka

Published on: Sep 28, 2004

If it weren't for the hurricanes, farm senators may not have had the window of opportunity to push for agricultural disaster relief for ranchers and farmers in addition to Florida's agricultural producers. Last week the Senate was successful in attaching an amendment to the FY05 Homeland Security appropriations bill that provides $2.9 billion in emergency assistance.

The package includes $2.5 billion in assistance to crop producers through the Crop Disaster Program, $475 million to livestock producers through the Livestock Assistance Program, and $20 million for the Tree Assistance Program. The provision passed allows producers to choose compensation for either their 2003 or 2004 crop year, says Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in a floor speech.

Conservatives look for offsets

On Monday, 23 farm groups including the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation asked the homeland security appropriations subcommittee members to support the aid. House Republicans and the White House say it will be hard to support the measure, which has passed the Senate, without finding money to offset the budget. With a growing budget deficit, House leaders say the only way to approve the measure is to reduce ag spending.

Appropriators are eyeing offset solutions by cutting 2002 Farm Bill expenditures, while farm senators oppose that approach. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, says, that agriculture is already making its contribution to fiscal responsibility.

The most recent Congressional Budget Office estimates show the commodity programs costing some $16 billion less in fiscal 2003-05 than was originally expected when the Farm Bill was written. In spite of these lower costs, President Bush’s budget calls for cutting some $1.2 billion from Farm Bill programs in fiscal 2005 alone in order to fund the agriculture appropriations bill, and in turn to slash those appropriations by more than 8% compared to 2004.

The power of two

The White House and House of Representatives are weighing the benefits of passing the bill for farm states. Florida is a given, with its key electoral votes for the presidential election, in addition to the President's brother being the governor.

"This is big politics," says National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) Vice President of Public Policy Jon Doggett. "We're not as concerned that they're doing something this year, but that they didn't do anything last year," Doggett adds. You shouldn't be better off having a complete disaster, like a hurricane, in an election year, than with disaster levels at 35% at any other time. He says, "Folks need to have the ability to take care of what they need to take care of without having to worry if it's a year divisible by two."

NCGA is advocating legislation, Companion Disaster Assistance Program (CDAP) that takes the politics out of delivering disaster assistance to producers who suffer significant yield losses and multiple-year shallow losses. The bill strengthens producers' ability to purchase higher levels of federally subsidized crop insurance.

Timeline rundown

Doggett predicts the President's signature within the end of the week on the disaster funding. But whether agricultural relief will make it pass the chopping block will likely unfold today. This must-pass legislation is important. But if Congress can pass this disaster bill in two weeks, why is legislation that works for farmers and taxpayers still not done after two years?