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Laws: 2002 farm bill ‘victory’ coming back to haunt

Agriculture’s “victory” in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 may be turning bittersweet for some producers.

President Bush signed the 2002 farm bill with some fanfare on May 13, 2002. Representatives of the major farm organizations, including then-National Cotton Council Chairman Kenneth Hood, attended the ceremony.

The ink wasn’t dry before critics began blasting the president for not vetoing the $179-billion bill. “By nightfall,” one farm legislation analyst said recently, “administration officials decided they had made a serious mistake.”

That turnaround has come back to haunt farm groups on several occasions, but rarely when more may have been at stake than in the fiscal year 2006 emergency supplemental appropriations bill that was approved by a House-Senate conference committee on June 7.

The committee reduced the $3.9 billion in disaster assistance that the Senate included in its version of the supplemental bill to $409 million after House conferees refused to accept the Senate package.

Both chambers normally have equal weight in conference committees, but the House leadership’s hand was strengthened by the president’s threat to veto the emergency supplemental appropriations bill if it contained more than $93.5 billion, primarily for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, hurricane recovery and avian flu.

Although farm-state senators and House members had argued disaster assistance was needed to help farmers hammered by floods, drought and high energy costs in 2005, the president was adamant the bill not contain additional funding for disaster aid.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Appropriations Committee chairman and the conference committee’s ranking senator who helped the Senate pass the $3.9 billion disaster package, finally gave up the fight during late-night negotiations, settling for the $409 million figure.

Other senators vented their frustration following the vote. “In 2005, nearly 80 percent of all U.S. counties were designated as disaster areas,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. “Every time I’m home, a farmer tells me they are getting out — that last year’s heavy rain, or flooding or frost had done them in. My bipartisan agriculture disaster assistance bill could have helped family farmers and ranchers trying to stay in business.

“Instead, recovery for farmers and ranchers was blocked by President Bush and the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives. That is wrong. As Americans, we help each other overcome disaster.”

The House and Senate could take another stab at a disaster assistance bill later this year. But House members and some senators will be focusing their attention on their re-election campaigns between now and Nov. 7. And the major farm organizations may not be willing to expend a lot more resources on disaster assistance with the 2007 farm bill renewal looming.

Some say the battle lines have been drawn for the mid-term elections with House Republicans claiming reducing the deficit takes precedence and Democrats arguing agriculture is too important to be allowed to go down the drain. Whether Democrats can mount a serious challenge remains to be seen.


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