Like a cat going through the fourth or fifth of its nine lives, disaster assistance legislation once again has begun winding its way through Congress.
The Senate Appropriations Committee accepted an amendment offered by Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Conrad Burns, R-Mont., to provide disaster aid to farmers hurt by adverse weather conditions in 2005.
The amendment, which the Appropriations Committee included in the fiscal year 2005 agricultural appropriations bill, would also give producers a 30 percent supplemental direct payment to help offset last year's high fuel prices.
A similar amendment, which would have provided $3.9 billion in disaster relief, was included in the fiscal year 2006 emergency supplemental appropriations bill passed by the committee and the full Senate. But a House-Senate conference committee reduced the aid to less than $500 million after President Bush threatened to veto the bill.
Despite the opposition from the president and House leaders, Dorgan said he wasn't giving up on the legislation because of its importance to farmers who lost their crops due to 2005 weather-related disasters.
“In North Dakota last year, almost 2 million acres of cropland were lost to weather-related disasters, and energy prices have skyrocketed,” he said. “The president has been successful so far in making sure family farmers and ranchers are stuck with the bill, but I believe the fight for disaster relief is still worth fighting.”
Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran has supported the legislation, saying it was needed to help farmers, including those in his state of Mississippi who received a double blow from Hurricane Katrina and last year's high energy costs.
Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo., also supported the legislation as cosponsors of the Dorgan-Burns amendment.
Farm organizations, including the USA Rice Federation and the National Farmers Union, commended the amendment's sponsors and the Appropriations Committee for passing the amendment.
“From coast to coast farmers have experienced overwhelming losses from weather-related disasters,” NFU President Tom Buis said. “Disaster losses have hit farmers at the same time they are contending with falling or stagnant commodity prices and skyrocketing input costs due to increases in energy prices.”
In addition to the devastation caused by last year's hurricane season, Buis said, farmers have faced significant losses to crop and livestock operations as a result of fires, flooding, drought, and excessive moisture. NFU has maintained that although disaster assistance will not make farmers who have suffered these severe losses whole again, it will help rural America stay afloat through these tough times.
“America's food and fiber producers have fallen victim to circumstances beyond their control,” Buis said. “I commend the Senate Appropriations Committee for its decisive action in passing this amendment.”
Dorgan also introduced an amendment that would authorize a general licensing program for those who want to travel to Cuba to promote and sell U.S. agricultural products. Currently, licenses are granted on a case-by-case basis, which can take several months to be processed.
The amendments, both passed by the committee during its June 22 mark-up session for the fiscal 2007 agricultural appropriations bill, came a few days after the House approved language in the Treasury-Transportation appropriations bill that block the Treasury Department from enforcing a rule that requires Cuba to pay for shipments of U.S. agriculture products before they leave port.