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Government, Politics & Issues

Drought spurs disaster declarations, farm aid bill and calls for federal task force

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 2, 2012 - WASHINGTON – The worst drought in decades has led to the designation of more than half of the nation’s counties as disaster areas, spurred the U.S. House to approve an aid plan Thursday for hard-hit livestock producers, and convinced some senators to ask the White House to name a federal task force to deal with the drought’s impact.

“The drought devastating U.S. producers of agriculture throughout the nation poses a serious threat to every American family that plans on visiting a grocery store this year,” said U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, arguing in favor of the House aid bill. “American farmers and ranchers are on the ropes right now, and this legislation is desperately needed.”

The 223 to 197 House vote on the short-term, $383 million disaster aid bill – aimed mainly at livestock operations, whose disaster-aid programs expired last year – was controversial because it would pay for the aid by cutbacks in two federal agricultural conservation programs. The livestock plan was in limbo after the Senate failed to take action on it before senators left on their August recess Thursday evening. Many senators would prefer a drought-aid package as part of a wider, five-year farm bill.

All members of the U.S. House delegations from Missouri and southern Illinois voted for the short-term disaster aid bill, other than U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, who voted no, and U.S. Reps. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, and Sam Graves, R-Tarkio, who did not vote.

Shortly before the House vote, a group of 14 mostly Democratic senators – including U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. – urged President Barack Obama in a letter to establish an Interagency Drought Task Force to coordinate federal responses to all aspects of the drought, including river navigation, agriculture, energy, public health, public lands, emergency response and the budget.

In addition to the impact on farms and the destruction by wildfires of 3 million acres of land, the senators said the declining water levels resulting from the drought is affecting “water uses including municipal water, energy extraction, power generation, irrigation, navigation and tourism.” The lawmakers asked Obama to direct the task force to report on the drought’s severity, its impact on sectors of the economy, the options available to address drought and recommendations for congressional action. 

The senators wrote that the drought “will have consequences on many sectors of the American economy, and it requires the cooperation of many parts of our government.”

The House vote came the day after 218 additional counties in a dozen states were added by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to its list of “primary disaster areas,” bringing the total – mostly as a result of drought – to 1,584 counties in 32 states. All of Missouri’s counties and 98 of Illinois’ 102 counties have been added to the disaster list.

Such disaster declarations make farmers and ranchers in those counties eligible for low-interest emergency loans and other forms of federal aid. On Thursday, Vilsack also opened up an additional 3.8 million acres of previously designated “conservation land” that ranchers can use for haying and grazing their livestock.

Vilsack said that aid would “help U.S. livestock producers dealing with climbing feed prices, critical shortages of hay and deteriorating pasturelands." He also said crop insurance firms have agreed to provide farmers with cash-flow problems a 30-day grace period on premiums this year.

As of this week, the USDA reported, nearly half of the nation's corn crop was rated poor to very poor, as was about 37 percent of the soybean crop. Nearly three-fourths of cattle acreage was in areas hit by drought.

The House vote for the Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act, which reauthorizes and modifies several disaster aid programs retroactively so that livestock operations and some other agricultural producers qualify for assistance, was relatively close because 46 Republicans joined most Democrats in opposing it. (Thirty-five Democrats, mainly from farm districts, voted for the bill.)

Among the Missouri Republicans who voted for the bill were Emerson and U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, who said, “This is one of the worst droughts Missouri has seen in generations and the future of our food supply is certainly being impacted. Providing farmers and ranchers with the resources they need to get through this difficult time is key to maintaining the stable food supply that benefits all Americans.”

Both of Missouri’s senators – McCaskill and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. – said they would have preferred that the House had approved the disaster aid as part of a wider, five-year agriculture bill similar to the legislation approved by the Senate in June, which included a renewal of the livestock disaster programs. But both senators also said they would have supported a focused disaster-aid package for livestock operations if it came to a Senate vote. 

“I am bitterly disappointed that the Tea Party is blocking the farm bill” in the House, McCaskill said in an interview. “But obviously I’m anxious to get help, particularly to our cattle ranchers, our livestock producers in Missouri, because they have no [disaster aid] program right now.”

Blunt also told reporters he would prefer that the House tackled a longer-term farm bill, but he doesn’t want that debate to hold up short-term assistance related to the drought. “I’m for a five-year farm bill, I voted for the Senate bill, and I think we could wind up with a final product that’s better than the Senate bill,” said Blunt. “But we shouldn’t use our desire to have a long-term farm bill as the excuse not to have short-term disaster relief assistance.”

The GOP-led House settled for the disaster relief bill after it was unable to find the votes for a multi-year farm and food-aid bill before this month’s recess. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Thursday that the House paralysis so far on a wider farm bill had as much to do with liberals as with conservatives, as the food stamp program would have been affected.

“The House is pretty well divided,” Boehner said. “You’ve got the left concerned about reductions in the food stamp program. You’ve got the right, who don’t think the cuts go far enough ... and, frankly, I haven’t see 218 votes in the middle” to pass a long-term farm bill.

In an interview, McCaskill said she was disappointed that the House “hasn’t been able to send us any kind of comprehensive farm bill. When I talk to farmers in Missouri, they want certainty. They want a multi-year farm bill. They want to know what programs are going to be in place, and what programs are going to change… They can’t turn on a dime and change their input costs and their planning for crop rotation. They need to know what's going to be the rules of the road.”

Blunt he was worried that the drought could have “a huge economic impact on lots of people” because of its impact on food prices and on livestock and other farm operations.

“The crop insurance will do a pretty good job of protecting those farm families that planted insurable crops,” Blunt said. “But there’s no assistance out there, really, for the poultry raiser, the dairy farming family, the cattle farmer or rancher – and they need some help.” 

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