House approves disaster aid bill

The House has passed a stand-alone disaster relief bill that also extends the Milk Income Loss Contract program and provides additional funding for wildfire suppression programs and fishery assistance.

The 302-120 vote on May 10 sets up another confrontation with the Bush administration if the Senate decides to take a similar tack with its version of the Iraq war emergency supplemental appropriations bill the president vetoed earlier this month.

The White House Office of Management and Budget issued a Statement of Administration Policy that listed the president’s objections to the bill, which would provide $3.5 billion in disaster assistance and another $3.5 billion for the MILC program, wildfire suppression, county payments and fishery assistance.

The new disaster bill is a result of the House Democratic leadership’s decision to create two supplemental appropriations bills, one for war spending and one for agriculture disaster assistance and other programs for rural communities.

The agriculture emergency assistance supplemental appropriations bill, H.R. 2207 includes language identical to the agriculture disaster provisions in the conference report for the first supplemental bill passed by the House and Senate in April.

“I hope the strong bipartisan vote in the House will convince President Bush to reconsider his veto threat,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson. “Many farmers and ranchers have been struggling for years to recover from disasters that have rocked their communities. This spending to help farmers get back to business is certainly necessary and warranted.”

The agriculture disaster assistance package includes assistance for farmers who lost 35 percent or more of their crops in 2005, 2006 or 2007 and for livestock producers in counties that experienced USDA designated natural disasters during that time. For the first time, only farmers who had insured their crop are eligible for payments.

“The need for agriculture disaster assistance is clear and pressing,” said Peterson. “More than 80 percent of all U.S. counties have been declared primary or contiguous disaster areas by the United States Department of Agriculture during the past three years.”

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, speaking at a press briefing at the World Agricultural Forum’s World Congress in St. Louis, said the administration believes Congress should offset any disaster assistance with spending reductions in other USDA farm programs.

“The 2002 farm bill provided a generous safety net for farmers, and the administration believes — rightfully so — that there must be offsets for any ad hoc disaster assistance programs,” the secretary said.

He also defended the administration’s record on disaster assistance, saying USDA had implemented a number of programs to help farmers who suffered losses from hurricanes, floods or droughts in the last two years.

OMB’s Statement of Administration Policy said the $7 billion included in the House-passed disaster bill “is unjustified and not appropriate for an emergency spending bill. In fact, this bill contains the same objectionable provisions included in the emergency war supplemental just vetoed by the president.

“Furthermore, the bill circumvents the new House ‘pay-as-you-go’ rule, bypasses the House Budget Resolution’s requirement for deficit-neutral direct spending and stretches the definition of ‘emergency.’”

A coalition of most major commodity and livestock organizations, including the National Cotton Council, sent a letter to House members urging them to vote in favor of the separated disaster bill.

The American Corn Growers Association, meanwhile, issued a statement saying it was “shocked and appalled” by the Statement of Administration Policy issued by the White House Office on Management and Budget on the pending agriculture assistance bill.

“It is hard to understand why, during a week that has seen levees burst, flooding of farms, homes and rural towns, huge sections of Georgia still burning, people in Greensburg, Kan., bury their dead and dig out of the ruble that the president of the United States has officially stated his intent to veto disaster legislation,” said ACGA CEO Larry Mitchell. “We have not seen this sort of callousness from the White House since the David Stockman days of the 1980s.”

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