Disaster relief approved for farmers hammered by drought, floods

Congress approved $14.4 billion in disaster relief for farmers and others who suffered losses from this year’s hurricanes and for farmers hurt by drought, floods or natural disasters in 2003 or 2004.

But the manner in which it was approved and funded created rancor that is sure to pill over onto the campaign trail, especially in races like that between Reps. Charles Stenholm and Randy Neugebauer, who are running for the same congressional seat in the High Plains of Texas.

The legislation, which was attached to the annual military construction bill, sends $11.5 billion in aid to businesses, farms, individuals and government installations damaged by hurricanes and storms in Florida and other East Coast states. It also provides $2.9 billion for farmers hurt by droughts, floods and other weather-related problems in other areas.

The initial disaster package submitted by the Bush administration to Congress would have only helped farmers in Florida who were hit by the four hurricanes that swept through the state in late August and September.

A number of congressmen, including Stenholm and Neugebauer and Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb., and Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., worked to include farmers who suffered losses from other natural disasters.

“Without the leadership of these members and their willingness to step up to the plate, assistance would have been provided only for victims of hurricanes and not producers impacted by other equally devastating disasters,” National Farmers Union President Dave Frederickson said.

But NFU and other farm group leaders said they were concerned that that Congress decided to fund the agriculture disaster assistance by capping the Conservation Security Program in the 2002 farm bill.

Stenholm, who introduced legislation expanding the assistance program, blamed the House leadership for the move to take money from the farm bill to pay for the disaster package.

“I was disappointed that the leadership of the House failed to yield to the majority will and to do what is fair and in the best interests of U.S. farmers and ranchers,” said Stenholm, who had 34 co-sponsors for the legislation, including Neugebauer and 16 other Republicans.

“The House failed to use the bipartisan legislative process that worked so well when (former Texas Rep.) Larry Combest led the Agriculture Committee in the development of the 2002 farm bill, and it did so for political considerations. As a result, the House has opened the farm bill when it didn’t have to.”

Neugebauer, who offered the amendment to pay for the $2.9 billion in disaster relief by reinstating spending limits on the Conservation Security Program, said he felt the strategy was the only way to obtain disaster relief this year.

“I saw a need to help our farmers in a way that is fiscally responsible and does not touch the farm bill,” he said. “I came to Washington to find solutions, and this much-needed disaster relief is a solution that will be a welcome sight for West Texas farmers.”

Like the disaster bill passed in 2003, farmers must have lost at least 35 percent of their crop to drought, flood or other natural disaster either in 2003 or 2004. Benefits will be in addition to proceeds from federal crop insurance claims.

Funding will be provided through the Crop Disaster Program, Quality Loss Program and Livestock Assistance Program. Growers cannot collect more than 95 percent of what they would have earned from an average crop on the payments, which are expected to being reaching farmers by the end of the year.

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