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Published August 02, 2012, 05:35 PM

House passes disaster assistance

After a week in which the House Republican leadership pulled an unpopular bill that would have extended the 2008 farm bill for a year, the House on Aug. 2 passed a farm disaster bill intended mostly to signal that legislators understand the problems of livestock producers in the drought.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — After a week in which the House Republican leadership pulled an unpopular bill that would have extended the 2008 farm bill for a year, the House on Aug. 2 passed a farm disaster bill intended mostly to signal that legislators understand the problems of livestock producers in the drought.

The vote was 223 to 197.

The bill was closer than expected, House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., noted that 46 Republicans had voted against the disaster aid, while 35 Democrats voted for it, signaling that it still takes a bipartisan coalition of the middle to pass farm legislation.

Peterson noted that the disaster package was not important to him because there has been a lot of rain in his district, but that he understood the distress in other parts of the country.

Much of the debate before the vote focused on the need to bring up the farm bill that the House Agriculture Committee passed in July. House leadership has been reluctant to bring up the bill because they do not want debates over costs and food stamps before the election.

“I am committed to getting certainty for farmers” when Congress comes back into session in September, Lucas said Aug. 2, while urging members to vote for the disaster aid bill.

Lucas and Peterson both said they expect to meet with Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Senate Agriculture ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., to discuss what work the agriculture committee staffs might do over the August break to push the farm bill forward. But Lucas noted that the big decisions cannot be made without members present.

Programs in the bill

The bill would reauthorize four disaster aid programs, mainly for livestock producers, but it is unlikely to become law because the Senate will not act on it before it leaves for recess and that body has already included the programs and others in the five-year farm bill it has passed.

The programs that the House bill would reauthorize are Livestock Indemnity Payments, Livestock Forage Disaster Programs, Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-raised Fish (ELAP), and the Tree Assistance Program.

The bill authorizes disaster assistance for 2012 only and provides for payments totaling $383 million.

The money would come from cuts to the environmental quality incentives program known as EQIP and from the conservation stewardship program known as CSP. Those programs would be cut by a total of $639 million over 10 years ($350 million from EQIP, $289 million from CSP), with $256 million going to deficit reduction.

Peterson said he would vote for the bill out of loyalty to Lucas and in the spirit of bipartisanship, but added, “This bill is a sad substitute for what is really needed — long-term farm policy.”

“I will continue to urge my colleagues to bring up the Agriculture Committee’s five-year farm bill to ensure that all producers will have the necessary assistance during times of disaster,” Peterson said.

Many conservation groups opposed the cuts to the EQIP and CSP programs and Peterson agreed. “I don’t think cutting conservation programs to offset the costs of disaster aid is the right approach,” he said Aug. 2. “If there was more time, maybe we could have worked together to find a better way to pay for this, but the rush to put this bill together didn’t give us the necessary time to fully explore all our options. This is yet another reason that I think bringing up the five-year farm bill makes more sense.”

Farm bill

Peterson noted that he and Lucas were ready to bring up the farm bill, but that House Republicans leaders refused to.

“No wonder no one likes Congress,” Peterson said. “Members will now have to explain to their constituents why the House did not even try to consider a new five-year farm bill. Frankly, we’re in this position because the House leadership has refused to bring a five-year farm bill to the floor.”

During the debate, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said he would oppose the bill because Congress should be debating the real cause of the drought: climate change.

The House Republican leadership initially proposed an extension of the 2008 farm bill, but farm groups of all types said they wanted a five-year bill. When the Republican leadership shifted to a disaster-only bill, the farm groups led by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and the major commodity groups said they were unenthusiastic. The groups said that, while they will not oppose the measure, they were disappointed that the House has not taken up the five-year farm bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee.

“We do not oppose passage of a disaster assistance bill, but note that almost identical provisions to retroactively extend these four programs are included in the Senate-passed farm bill and the bill reported by the House Agriculture Committee,” the groups said in a letter.

“Those measures would likely be included in any conference committee report,” the letter said. “It is imperative that we pass a comprehensive, long-term farm bill. Farmers and ranchers always face decisions that carry very serious financial ramifications, such as planting a crop, buying land or building a herd, and we need clear and confident signals from our lawmakers.”

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