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COLUMN: Disaster assistance logjam

Talk about déjà vu. The headline read "Disaster aid bill expected.

"Congress has passed an emergency supplement spending bill that includes $995 million in immediate aid for farmers hurt by drought or floods." the article said. "The bill, which was awaiting President Bush's signature at press time…."

If you changed the dates and the dollar amounts, this story in the Dec. 6, 1991 Delta Farm Press could have been dropped verbatim into this week's issue. Oh, except for the little drawback that Congress hasn't passed this year's disaster legislation.

Farm organizations were mounting one more attempt to break the logjam on disaster aid between the Senate and House leaders and the current Bush administration before Congress recesses Oct. 18.

The effort has taken on added importance in some congressional circles because of the massive amounts of rainfall that have fallen in the lower Mississippi Valley from two tropical storms and two other weather systems in recent days.

The Senate passed an amendment to the FY 2003 Interior Department appropriations bill that would provide nearly $6 billion in emergency economic assistance for farmers hurt by droughts and flooding in 2001 and 2002.

But the Interior bill, like the 12 other bills funding the government for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, is sitting in the Senate hopper while environmentalists and timber interests slug it out over the measure's forest fire management provisions.

House Republican leaders and the Bush administration have indicated they want the bill funded from spending offsets in the 2002 farm bill – a requirement opposed by Senate Democrats and major farm organizations.

Bush administration officials say they are not opposed to additional disaster aid, although Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has gone to great pains to point out the assistance USDA has already provided producers.

On Oct. 9, Mitch Daniels, White House Office of Management and Budget director, said the administration believes Congress should not exceed the House-passed $759 billion FY 2003 budget resolution figure. The Senate spending total for FY 2003 is $13.5 billion higher.

Senate leaders, meanwhile, say agriculture should receive credit for the savings that could be realized if FY 2002 farm bill spending is $5.6 billion less than earlier projections because of this year's higher grain and oilseed prices.

For farmers in the lower Delta, the 15 to 25 inches of rain since mid-September have made disaster assistance even more critical. Many of those could not pay their bills last year because of similar rainfall amounts before harvest. Now, they face weeks of struggle to get what's left of this crop out of the field.

Through it all, farmers are trying to maintain a sense of humor. I listened to this exchange Sunday after yet another storm had passed through the Clarksdale, Miss., area:

Someone in my Sunday School class suggested that one of our farmer members consider attending a financial management seminar because of the short cotton crop resulting from the adverse weather.

"There's nothing short about this crop," the farmer responded. "The cotton is as tall as it's ever been. It's just that the water has been so much deeper."

You have to admire that farmer's spirit.

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