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Congress fails to act on disaster amendment

Farmers who lost all or part of their crops due to weather in 2001 will have to wait a while longer to see if any federal disaster assistance will be forthcoming.

Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns of Montana offered an amendment to the defense supplemental appropriations bill that would have provided $2.3 billion in emergency assistance for crop and livestock losses.

The amendment was not considered due to a procedural move, but it faced an uncertain future even if adopted. Baucus included a similar amendment in the Senate farm bill, but House conference committee members objected, and it was deleted from the farm bill conference report.

The good news was the Senate also did nothing with Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley's payment limit amendment to the supplemental bill.

During the final Senate farm bill debate, Baucus argued eloquently that wheat farmers in Montana and other Western states suffering from a prolonged drought were in dire need of assistance. Mid-South cotton and soybean farmers also had their share of misery due to the monsoons that dumped 12 to 15 inches of rain across the mid-Delta last fall. Soaked seed sprouted in the sauna-like conditions, costing growers thousands of dollars.

Other growers took it on the chin, too. Abraham Carpenter Jr., who oversees a 1,000-acre family operation near Grady, Ark., had just irrigated his sweet potatoes when 11 inches of rain fell in September. The family lost an estimated $400,000. Then, they had to replant 200 acres of vegetables this spring when more untimely rains fell.

Besides the expense of disking, bedding and planting, Carpenter points out, vegetable seed can cost $40 to $50 a pound. “That's a great expense when you have to do it all again.”

As much as it may be needed, Sen. Baucus' amendment couldn't come at a worse time, given the negative press surrounding the new farm bill. Trying to deflect the criticism, the Bush administration issued a policy statement, saying it supported the new farm bill to give farmers the resources they need, but that it “strongly opposes” any additional agriculture spending.

“The farm bill breaks the bad fiscal habit of needing to pass emergency agricultural spending bills, including drought assistance and other supplemental payments that make it difficult for Congress to live within its budget,” the statement said.

Washington observers believe that President Bush might not veto a bill containing a disaster assistance rider, but that he would have to swallow hard before he signed it, knowing what kind of adverse publicity would follow.

The dilemma faced by the White House and Congress shows how much the new farm bill and a viable crop insurance program for all producers are needed.

Texas farmers reportedly had $298 million in crop losses (followed by Montana with $247 million) that were not covered by federal crop insurance in 2001, according to a letter sent by Sen. Burns to the president.

Disaster amendment supporters say they will re-introduce their amendment when Congress considers the agricultural appropriations bill, but it's clear they face an uphill struggle.

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