Congress held a rare session out of Washington Sept. 6, assembling in New York's historic Federal Hall to pay tribute to the victims of Sept. 11. It was only Congress' second time to meet away from the Capitol.

Press accounts mentioned the past antipathy between Congress and New York, but said that New York leaders were grateful for the gesture and the $20 billion Congress provided to help the city's recovery efforts. Few would argue that New Yorkers were undeserving of the nation's sympathy and assistance following the attacks that killed 3,000 people, destroyed the World Trade Center and severely damaged the Pentagon.

Somehow that $20 billion is conveniently forgotten, however, when big-city newspapers — most of them New York-based — heap scorn and abuse on assistance to farmers also struggling to recover from a situation not of their own making.

Since President Bush signed the farm bill May 13 scarcely a week has passed when a national publication or TV news show has not denounced farm program spending as “welfare payments for corporate farmers.” Typical of those was a recent New York Times article entitled “A New Villain in Free Trade: The Farmer on the Dole.”

Never mind that producers have also been struggling with conditions beyond their control or that a sound agricultural economy is also in the national interest. With their lack of knowledge about the farm sector, the national media have never understood agriculture's problems.

This unrelenting criticism of the farm bill is affecting other farm legislation. Due to the pounding from the national media, the president and some members of Congress are calling for disaster assistance for the 2001 and 2002 crops to be funded by spending offsets from the farm bill.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., introduced legislation in July that would send $620 million to the Livestock Assistance Program to provide feed reimbursements to eligible livestock producers with losses caused by drought, insect infestation other natural disasters. Another $14 million would be provided for grasshopper and cricket control.

“The extra $73.5 billion approved last year was for all of agriculture — not just program crops,” Hagel said in a letter to Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “Also, unlike recent years, we no longer have a budget surplus. Besides being more responsible, a disaster bill which offsets stands a much better chance of passing the Congress than one which authorizes new spending.”

There is little doubt that growers in Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana and Idaho are suffering from the most serious drought since the 1930s. Nebraska growers report whole counties where farmers will harvest little, if any, corn and low yields of soybeans.

Groups like the National Cotton Council and Farm Bureau, which fought hard for every dollar in the new farm bill, are opposed to offsets, arguing that disaster assistance should be considered separately since some of it would cover losses prior to passage of the new law.

The national media again are jumping into the battle, accusing the farm groups of seeking more help for wealthy farmers. But it's easy to criticize when you don't understand something in the first place.