Column: House comments may signal more disaster delays

With the shift in weather patterns two years ago, southern growers have received more than enough rain in some cases, while farmers in the Plains states have been hit by the worst droughts since the Dust Bowl.

As economic conditions worsened, southern congressmen spearheaded legislation that authorized supplemental Agricultural Marketing and Transition Act (AMTA) payments in 1998-2000. The supplemental payments went to all AMTA recipients, including Midwest farmers, although they harvested good crops in those years.

Now, some Midwest farmers, who didn’t say much when the supplemental payments were being issued in the late 1990s, say disaster assistance for 2001 and 2002 should be "targeted" to producers who suffered losses in those years.

Those arguments forced Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran to modify his disaster assistance plan to limit a new supplemental payment to farmers in declared disaster counties or who lost at least 35 percent of their production in 2001/2002.

House Agriculture Committee leaders are now repeating some of the same arguments as a House-Senate conference committee prepares to take up the omnibus appropriations bill that includes Cochran’s amendment.

Although Sen. Cochran made concessions that will probably delay delivery of disaster aid into the summer, House Ag Committee members say they want to put in more restrictions.

"We would like to see it targeted a bit better," said Nebraska Rep. Tom Osborne. The former University of Nebraska football coach’s comments were almost an echo of those by Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Ben Nelson of Nebraska two weeks earlier.

While he made similar comments himself, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, House Ag Committee chairman, tried to strike a middle ground between Midwest and Southern sentiments. "It’s our responsibility as a committee to find the best way to make it work as fairly as possible and as expeditiously as possible," he said.

Another congressman, Rep. Jerry Moran of Kansas, seemed to be happy that House committee members, who have yet to consider disaster legislation, finally seemed to recognize the legislation is needed.

Comments like Osborne’s added an element of uncertainty to what had seemed like a done deal after the Senate vote on the Cochran amendment.

In a press conference on Jan. 31, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman seemed to back away from the administration’s endorsement of the Cochran disaster amendment when asked about a Washington Post editorial that called the legislation a disaster.

She noted that the Senate disaster assistance proposal had gone through "a lot of iterations and a lot of negotiating," and would now have to go to a House-Senate conference committee. "So it’s difficult at this point to make a judgment as to where that will come out.

"I know there are a lot of differing conversations about what people believe ought to be done with the bill, but certainly we have put forward our principles for the fact that such assistance needs to be offset, and we will continue to work closely with the Congress as they conference."

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