Disaster program bogs down farm bill

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Efforts to craft a new farm bill budget framework ran into a buzz saw on March 19, after Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., described it as "dead on arrival" because it would provide only $2.2 billion in new funding for a permanent disaster-assistance program, half of the original sought after disaster funding.

"I won't vote for or help to fund any agreement that does not do disaster assistance right for our farmers in need," Baucus said in a written statement. He was joined in criticizing the possible budget plan by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who chairs the Senate Budget Committee and also is a member of the Senate Agriculture and Finance Committees.

"On the farm bill, the Finance Committee did something it's done nowhere else, finding resources and freeing up funds for the Agriculture Committee to pursue priorities like nutrition programs. If we continue to work together, we can keep America's farmers from getting the short end of the stick on disaster assistance. This proposed agreement isn't good enough," Baucus added.

The reactions came after Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, unveiled a budget framework that would provide an additional $10.058 billion in spending over 10 years for the farm bill in excess of the budget baseline allocated by Congress.

"This is a strong framework that allocates funding across the full spectrum of farm bill needs — renewable energy, nutrition, conservation, rural development, disaster assistance and other major areas," Harkin maintained. But the framework still would rely on the Finance Committee finding up to $10 billion in additional funding, $5.1 billion of which was intended to be directed to disaster assistance.

National Farmers Union President Tom Buis also objected to the lack of disaster funding. "Every year farmers and ranchers across the country face weather-related disasters beyond their control. A lack of a disaster program is the single biggest hole in the safety net," Buis said.

In a teleconference with reporters last week, I questioned Ag Secretary Ed Schafer whether the disaster program is something the Administration would like to keep out of a final bill. He replied the Administration maintains the new bill should include a good safety net, but how to come out with the balance of risk management of some disaster part dollars and regular subsidy programs is still unknown.

"We're not going to spend too much money to be able to have a disaster program on top of everything else," he said. "So safety net programs are important, the Administration has called for them, and how they get shaped up in the end here and what you call them we're not sure how that's going to be."

Congress, which returns from a two-week recess on March 31, is facing an April 18 deadline for enacting a new farm bill.

President Bush has said he would favor extending the 2002 farm law for an additional year if Congress is not close to an agreement by that time. Congress passed, and the president on March 15 signed, a second extension of the 2002 farm law to keep existing farm law in place through April 18.


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