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On disaster assistance bill, time just ran out

Hunter Moorhead knew that once the “high-level” phone calls started coming in to the Senate Agriculture Committee it was just a matter of time until the logjam would break on the recently enacted disaster assistance legislation. Talking with reporters following his speech at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show, Moorhead said it wasn't any secret in Washington that a number of people were opposed to disaster assistance legislation because of the drubbing Congress and the president had taken over the 2002 farm bill.

A member of the Ag Committee staff and former legislative aide to Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, Moorhead also said he believes agriculture was fortunate to get the $3.1-billion disaster aid bill. “Sen. Cochran took the lead as head of the Senate Agriculture Committee,” said Moorhead. “His proposal would have targeted counties with disaster declarations with assistance that would have equaled 42 percent of their direct payment. We had other bells and whistles — cottonseed assistance, money for sugar producers and replenishment for Section 32 funding.”

Cochran's bill was hotly debated on the Senate floor, but passed overwhelmingly. Some Mid-South lenders reportedly made crop loans on the strength of the Senate vote. But the House had no disaster provisions in its omnibus bill.

“It was two weeks from the time the Senate passed its bill until we could get to conference,” said Moorhead. “And for those two weeks we were hung out to dry, attacked from every direction.”

While critics said the assistance should have been more targeted, Moorhead said that if a farmer was in a disaster county, “there was a strong possibility that farmer suffered a loss to drought or some other weather problem. Our main point was speedy delivery. It would have gone out in a matter of weeks.”

Congress was late in getting to the disaster bill, which would normally have come up in October after USDA reported on the damage. But Congress was unable to pass 11 of the 13 fiscal 2003 appropriations bills and held them over until the new Congress. House leaders also wanted to offset disaster funding with spending cuts in the 2002 farm bill.

“In the end, disaster assistance was holding up those 11 appropriations bill,” said Moorhead. “The conferees were under the gun to pass the omnibus spending bill, but they couldn't agree on the disaster portion.

“Then, one morning, some pretty high-level people started calling Sen. Cochran,” he said. “When those calls started coming in, I figured that it wouldn't be long until an agreement was worked out.”

In the end, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee went to House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and said, “We've got to have the disaster bill.” And Speaker Hastert reportedly said, “We don't want it.”

“Time just ran out on us,” said Moorhead. “We got the money, but we had to accept the 35 percent loss threshold. When Sen. Cochran was able to convince them that we needed the $3.1 billion, in my mind, you've accomplished a lot. With the $4 billion from crop insurance, farmers will receive $7 billion in disaster assistance this year, and that has to help.”

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