The Bush administration has given its blessing to the Cochran disaster assistance amendment, which was passed Jan. 22 by the Senate 59 to 35 as it debated the fiscal 2003 omnibus appropriations bill.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman issued a statement applauding the work of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairmen of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee, on the legislation shortly after the Senate defeated an alternative amendment introduced by Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., 39-56.

The Daschle amendment would have provided at least $5.9 billion in disaster assistance while the administration-favored Cochran amendment has been scored by the Congressional Budget Office at $3.1 billion.

“Throughout the debate in the Congress on additional disaster aid, the administration has insisted that the legislation be paid for through offsets in other programs,” Veneman said. “The measure passed today appears to meet the administration's objectives in this regard.”

Following its approval by the Senate on Jan. 23, the omnibus appropriations bill, House Joint Resolution 2, was scheduled to go to a House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the spending plan for the fiscal year that began last October.

The Cochran amendment would provide supplemental direct payments equal to 42 percent of the 2002 farm bill's direct or fixed payments to farmers in counties declared disaster areas by USDA in 2001 or 2002. Farmers who experienced losses of at least 35 percent of their average production in either of those years would also qualify for aid.

“This measure will enable us to get help to farmers much faster than a program requiring a formal signup,” said Cochran, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “With the computer programs that USDA has at its disposal, checks should be issued in a matter of weeks rather than months.”

While farmer response to the Cochran amendment has been mixed, one analyst called its passage a victory for agriculture and rural areas.

Noting that the amendment must still pass a House-Senate conference committee, Rob Westmoreland of the Memphis, Tenn.-based Sparks Companies Inc. told farmers attending the Delta Ag Expo in Cleveland, Miss., that there is general agreement that the disaster money is coming.

“We expect the disaster package, when it is approved, to be somewhere in the $3 billion to $5 billion range,” he said. “The trade-off is who gets the money. More than likely, those who had a legitimate, declared disaster in 2001 will qualify for assistance. That's about 75 percent of the counties nationwide.”

Westmoreland, executive vice president for Sparks, said the disaster amendment is another example of Southern congressmen coming through for their constituents.

“The elected representatives from the South are doing their job,” he said. “They've provided us with a basic farm program that guarantees a minimum level of income per unit. Whether that's right or equitable is another debate.

“The current farm program is probably the most Byzantine ever invented, rivaling the Internal Revenue Service. The end result, however, is a nice stream of money.”

He also discussed the debate that erupted within the Republican ag senatorial ranks over how the disaster measure's funding should be distributed before the Cochran amendment went to the floor of the Senate.

While Sen. Cochran wanted to use the existing farm bill payment structure to speed the funding to farmers, Midwest senators argued for targeting the payments to supposedly more deserving farmers hurt by droughts on the Plains and upper Midwest.

“Instead of Democrats versus Republicans, it's the North versus the South on this,” said Westmoreland.

At its annual meeting in Tampa, Fla., the American Farm Bureau Federation reaffirmed support for the Cochran amendment's financial assistance provisions for farmers and ranchers who suffered crop and livestock losses due to weather disasters in 2001 and 2002.

While insisting that the 2002 farm bill should not be reopened, AFBF delegates approved a resolution that urged “Congress to complete action on emergency weather disaster assistance for the nearly 90 percent of all U.S. counties that have received disaster designations,” during both the 2001 and 2002 crop years.

But other farmers questioned whether the amendment would provide enough help to pull farmers out of their current financial woes.

“Do you really think this is help,” asked one grower in an e-mail to deltafarmpress.com. “You have to love the idea, when a farmer lost $100,000 to the weather, and his crop insurance is very insufficient, let's hand him $3,000 or $4,000 and tell him everything is going to be OK.”

For more information on the Cochran amendment provisions, go to http://agriculture.senate.gov/press.


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.