The recent, unusually raucous debate in the House of Representatives over a call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq may have hurt the chances for the passage of disaster assistance legislation for U.S. farmers.
“Two weeks ago before we came home for the Thanksgiving recess, I would have told you I thought the likelihood of that legislation passing would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 to 70 percent,” said Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark.
“Then we got in one of those disgusting, political, partisan knife fights, and everybody lost focus on anything that didn't amount to a hill of beans. All we did was call each other names, and, as you all know, that was very unproductive and didn't get anything done for anybody.”
As a result, he and other farm-state congressmen came home without the disaster bill they wanted, said Berry, speaking at the annual meeting of the Agriculture Council of Arkansas in Memphis, Tenn., Dec. 2.
“It was held back primarily to create some leverage for what we were going to have to do when we get back in session,” he said. “I think now that we probably have a 40 percent chance of getting that done. I wish I could tell you that it was 90 percent, but I wouldn't be telling you the truth.”
The legislation, which is the companion bill to legislation introduced in the Senate by Sens. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Jim Talent, R-Mo., would give producers who experienced a 35 percent loss due to adverse weather in 2005 the option to receive a partial direct payment.
Some have said they favor providing a full payment to growers, but Berry says he doubts that will happen. “It think 100 percent of a direct payment is overly optimistic,” he said. “I think 50 percent or 40 percent would be much more likely to happen.”
The fight Berry referred to came after Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a veteran of the U.S. Marines Corps, called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in comments on the House floor on Nov. 18. During the ensuing debate, House members began calling each other names.
The proposed disaster bill would be something of a throwback to earlier legislation that gave farmers an additional Agricultural Marketing Transition Act or AMTA payment following disasters in the late 1990s. Subsequent bills have set up disaster assistance payment schedules that were not tied to the direct payments farmers receive under the 2002 farm bill.
Under the current farm bill, producers receive direct payments of 6.67 cents per pound for upland cotton; $2.35 per hundredweight for rice; 44 cents per bushel for soybeans; 28 cents per bushel for corn; 35 cents per bushel for grain sorghum; and 52 cents per bushel for wheat. Direct payments are calculated by multiplying the payment rate times the producer's program yield times 85 percent of his base acres for that crop.
While Berry was still hopeful about the prospects for the disaster bill when he spoke in Memphis, “I wouldn't want anyone leaving here today and making a business decision thinking that it would happen. It may not, but if we get it done, then that will just be something good.”
Berry said every farmer in the United States should find some way to say thank you to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and now chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
“I can tell you this,” he said. “Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi is a great statesman; he is a great champion of American agriculture; and he has done so many great things for Mid-South agriculture that I can't possibly list them all. If you see him, tell him thank you for what he's done on this disaster bill.
“That's because he is our champion. He does it in a very quiet way — you won't read about it on the front page of The Washington Post — but he gets the job done. He deserves our respect and our gratitude.”
Cochran reportedly is pushing a plan that would provide $4 billion in disaster relief for agriculture and double President Bush's request for $17 billion for recovery efforts for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Cochran and Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi's junior senator, have criticized the Bush administration's lack of response to the needs of hurricane victims, some of whom are still living in tents or in what's left of their homes, and the failure to follow through on the president's promises to help rebuild the Gulf Coast.
Berry also said he would be glad to change the date of the current farm bill, “improve the numbers a little bit and go home and declare victory,” if he could.
“I remember so well when we wrote the last one,” he said. “I was on the Agriculture Committee at the time, and I was really proud of that. Some of you may not remember that in the House we actually raised payment limits, which almost caused (Iowa Sen. Charles) Grassley to have a heart attack.”
No one could have predicted $3 per gallon diesel fuel at the time Congress passed the 2002 bill, he said, noting that that and one of the driest production seasons on record and the lasting effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita had combined to put Arkansas' farmers in dire straits.
He said the outcome of the next farm bill, due to be written in 2007, hinges on the outcome of the 2006 mid-term, congressional elections.
“If the next election yields the same results as the last one, I don't think we will have a farm bill that you can recognize,” he said. “I think that it will be almost insignificant in the support it will provide in the traditional ways that we have viewed farm programs.”