The Senate, ignoring a veto threat from President Bush, voted 78-20 to pass an emergency supplemental appropriations bill that contains $3.9 billion in disaster aid for farmers who suffered losses due to multiple weather problems in 2005.
The supplemental bill, which authorizes a total of $109 billion in spending, is $14 billion above the level the president requested. The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy that said the president would veto the bill if it exceeded the $92.2 billion he requested for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and hurricane relief.
A conference committee will be convened to reconcile the Senate version of the bill with that passed by the House. The House version contains only $65.7 billion for war operations and $28.8 billion for hurricane the recovery effort.
“I want to thank my colleagues who spent so much time and effort putting this legislation together,” said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who, as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, managed the floor debate on the supplemental bill. “It will provide assistance that is greatly needed by farmers in many parts of the United States.”
Although Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Conrad Burns, R-Mont., introduced the disaster assistance legislation as an amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill, Sen. Cochran deserves credit for pushing the bill through the Appropriations Committee last month, observers said.
Some senators, including Burns, were talking about trimming the bill’s spending before the ink was dry on the Senate-passed version.
“Congress cannot continue to spend without restraint, and this administration cannot continue to rely on the use of emergency supplementals to circumvent the Congressional budget process,” Burns said.
“The president has asked for $92.2 billion, and I think that – at a minimum – we need to work our way back to that number in conference. We need to take a careful look at all of the president’s requests, as well as the priorities that other senators have, and make a decision whether these provisions are truly emergency needs.”
Other senators defended the added spending measures in the bill.
“Many of our farmers today are simply trying to stay in business against all odds,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who issued a joint press release with fellow Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln after the bill’s passage. “That’s why Senator Lincoln and I fought hard to ensure disaster relief was included in the bill and to bring it to this point.
“I hope the president will see our farmers’ business as an important investment in our nation. If we turn our backs on our farmers, we’re going to see the price of food skyrocket just like our gas prices.”
Lincoln noted she has been trying to get Congress to pass disaster relief since not long after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas seven months ago.
“I implore the Bush administration to lift its objections to this critical assistance for America’s farmers who don’t have the ability to pass on their rising costs of operation to their customers.”
National Farmers Union President Tom Buis was one of the first to applaud the Senate for passing the supplement appropriations bill.
“Droughts, floods, hurricanes, wildfires, insects, budget cuts, low commodity prices and skyrocketing energy costs have placed a significant burden on our nation’s food and fiber producers,” he said. “The Senate did the right thing, and now it’s time for the House and administration to follow the Senate’s lead.”
Pryor and Lincoln said drought, hurricane damage, and high energy prices have escalated irrigation and other input costs on the agricultural community. “Unlike other industries, farmers are largely unable to pass on higher costs to consumers, which means higher energy costs directly hurts farm income and the local economy,” said Pryor.
To address the higher input costs, the agriculture disaster relief includes a payment of 30 percent of the direct payment for farmers enrolled in the farm program for the 2005 crop as well as USDA grants to states to provide agricultural market and economic assistance. The amendment also provides crop production loss assistance in a manner similar to previous disaster programs, including a payment rate of 50 percent of the established price of the crop if a farmer suffered a yield loss of at least 35 percent.
Lincoln, Pryor and other congressmen introduced disaster assistance bills beginning last September to provide farmers with a 100 percent direct payment, but said the 30 percent direct payment compromise was necessary to provide more timely assistance. They helped forge the compromise language with 23 other farm state senators.