WASHINGTON – The Senate is expected to take up amendments to an omnibus spending bill that would provide from $3.1 billion to $6 billion in disaster assistance to farmers who have suffered weather losses in the last two crop seasons.
Although numerous disaster relief bills have been introduced in recent days, Washington observers say the debate will come down to a $3.1 billion proposal authored by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and the $6 billion assistance plan offered last fall by former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
The debate over the amendments could take place as early as today, according to Senate staff members.
“We’re being told that as many as 245 amendments could be offered to the omnibus spending bill,” said a Senate Agriculture Committee spokesman. “Whether all those will come to the floor is hard to predict, but it may be awhile before they get to the disaster bill.”
The $3.1 billion Cochran amendment is an updated version of a proposal unveiled last week that would have provided a supplemental payment equal to 42.25 percent of the annual direct or fixed payment in the 2002 farm bill.
Cochran changed the amendment to say payments equal to 42 percent of the direct payment would go to producers located in a declared disaster county in 2001 or 2001 or who incurred disaster losses equal to 35 percent of their anticipated production in either of those years.
The change came after Midwest senators complained loudly that farmers who did not suffer crop losses in either of those years would also receive the 42.25-percent supplemental payment. They also were seeking increased funding for livestock producers hurt by the 2001 and 2002 droughts.
The new Cochran amendment contains $250 million for a Livestock Loss Assistance Program.
Growers must also agree to purchase a minimum amount of federal crop insurance coverage for insurable crops for each of the next two crop years to be eligible for a supplemental direct payment under the Cochran amendment.
Proponents say the Daschle proposal, which was passed as an amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill last fall but never finally approved by the Senate, would provide higher payments to farmers who experienced crop losses in either of the two years.
"Drought victims shouldn't have to wait any longer to receive the help they so depserately need," said Daschle. "I am hopeful that we can get sufficient aid directly into the hands of farmers and ranchers quickly."
While Daschle has said his amendment would cost around $6 billion, critics claim its tab could reach as high as $8 billion.
According to the Senate Agriculture Committee staff, the Cochran proposal includes the following provisions:
- Provides disaster payments equivalent to 42 percent of a producer' s fixed payments under the 2002 farm bill. The amendment would limit these payments only to producers in a county that received a disaster designation by the president or the secretary of agriculture. In addition, producers in counties that do not receive a disaster designation, but can provide to the Farm Service Agency proof of at least a 35 percent loss, would also be eligible for the 42 percent payment.
- The 42 percent formula is similar to historic disaster programs that pay on 65 percent of production at 65 percent of market price.
- The proposal can be implemented quickly. When Congress has used this mechanism in the past, USDA has been able to begin issuing payments within days. Even with additional time necessary to program computers to limit these payments to disaster counties this mechanism will be far more expeditious than burdening farmers and the Farm Service Agency with yet another program signup.
- Requirements on the Section 32 program account have left insufficient amounts to address the need. First, it provides $250 million to replenish the Section 32 account to provide the Secretary with funds to carry out surplus removals. As Senators may know, these purchased commodities are made available to schools, food banks, and other institutions.
- It gives the secretary an additional $100 million to provide assistance to fruit and vegetable producers. The Secretary would have the ability to direct these funds in a manner she believes would be most beneficial to producers.
- Provides authority for the Livestock Compensation Program announced by the Secretary of Agriculture to be extended to any county that submitted a disaster designation after Sept. 19, 2002. USDA has already made payments to producers in counties that submitted their request before September 19. In some cases, information was not available until after that date. The way that USDA structured the program, it was necessary to have a cut-off date. This provision will ensure that all livestock producers in disaster counties will have access to this program. This amendment would also allow catfish farmers to signup for compensation under this program.
- This amendment also provides $250 million for the Livestock Assistance Program, commonly known as LAP. Cattle producers, particularly in the West, suffered tremendously from this year's drought. The additional benefits provided by this program will be helpful to them. Any LAP benefits they would receive would be offset by any payments already paid under the Livestock Compensation Program or the Livestock Feed Assistance Program.
- Provides a total of $160 million for sugar losses - $80 million for losses due to hurricane damages to sugarcane and an additional $80 million for sugar beet drought losses.
- Provides $70 million for the Farm Service Agency for costs associated with the implementation of the Farm Bill and this title.
- The bill also includes provisions for loss compensation due to irrigation water shortages in Texas, cottonseed damages across the South, and pesticide misapplication in New Mexico.
This amendment has received a $3.1 billion score from the Congressional budget Office, according to the Ag Committee staff. They said the amount is offset and is not emergency spending.