The one-sided margin of the Senate vote on the Daschle disaster assistance amendment was due in no small part to reports that farm programs will cost significantly less in fiscal 2003 than had been anticipated.

On the eve of the Senate's 79-16 vote to waive a budget requirement on the disaster assistance amendment, Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad released a Congressional Budget Office estimate that spending would be $5.6 billion lower in 2003 because of this year's higher grain prices.

“We're not making the point that this is an offset,” Conrad said at a press briefing held by co-sponsors of the amendment. “We're making the point that this is savings equivalent to the cost.”

If the CBO estimate is on target, the savings would nearly match the projected $5.9 billion cost of the Senate disaster amendment named for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Daschle's home state of South Dakota has been one of those hardest hit by the 2002 drought in the Plains and upper Midwest states.

Following a brief debate on the amendment to the Interior appropriations bill on Sept. 10, the Senate first voted 79-16 to waive the budget requirement and then approved Daschle's amendment on a voice vote. The amendment had five Republicans among its 28 co-sponsors.

Those Republicans defied opposition from administration officials who suggested any disaster assistance should be funded by reducing the spending in the new farm bill.

Prior to the vote, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman wrote Senate leaders advising them of administration unhappiness with the Senate amendment which she said would provide disaster payments above the spending levels authorized in the 2002 farm bill.

“The administration strongly opposes this amendment and any agriculture spending in excess of the $180 billion in spending provided earlier this year,” Veneman said in the letter to Daschle and Minority Leader Trent Lott.

“This proposal would add $6 billion on top of the already generous farm bill only a few months after the bill was enacted. This is unacceptable,” she said. “The needs for the current drought must be met within the additional resources provided for in the farm bill.”

The secretary defended the administration's efforts to help farmers suffering from the 2002 drought, noted that it had taken all action allowable under current law to assist struggling farmers and ranchers.

“This includes expediting emergency declarations and making emergency loans available to producers, the recent release of CCC-owned milk powder in order to provide a low cost feed supplement for cow and calf operations, and the opening of all CRP lands nationwide for haying and grazing.

“The president has consistently stated his support for additional drought relief provided it does not increase the deficit.”

She said Congress has already provided the tools for drought relief for crop farmers through the heavily subsidized Federal Crop Insurance Program, noting the crop insurance subsidy was increased dramatically in 2000 to avoid the need for disaster payments.

“The vast majority of the crop acreage in the drought regions is covered by crop insurance,” she said. “Over 70 percent of the acreage in the U.S. is covered and over 80 percent in South Dakota. Our goal should be to maximize participation in the program.”

But she also said USDA does recognize that ranchers and livestock producers who have been severely impacted by this drought do not benefit from the same risk management tools available to other farmers.

“The recently enacted farm bill provides $180 billion, an increase of $82 billion above the baseline,” she said. “This $180 billion can accommodate funding for emergencies, economic assistance, rural development, and other purposes. One of the greatest benefits of the farm bill is that it ensures farmers have the resources they need.”

Farm organizations, including the National Cotton Council, had argued that taking money from the new farm bill authorization would reduce the amount of assistance that had been promised to help them recover from four years of disastrously low prices.

Other groups applauded the Senate for its willingness to go to bat for farmers at a time of turmoil in both agriculture and the national economy.

“We applaud the Senate for passing this essential assistance,” said Dave Frederickson, president of the National Farmers Union. “Farmers Union has worked hard for this first step toward certainty for farmers and ranchers devastated by drought, floods, insects and disease. We encourage the House to follow quickly with similar legislation and urge the administration to support this bipartisan effort to assist rural America.”

The Senate is now waiting on the House to pass its version of the Interior appropriations bill and go to a conference committee.

While a number of farm-state House members support the concept of providing additional funding for disaster assistance for the 2001 and 2002 crop years, the legislation faces tough sledding in the more urban-oriented House.

Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, chief sponsor of House disaster legislation, has said he favors taking the funding from the spending authorization for the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.