Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns continues to insist offsets must be made before President Bush will sign a $3.5 billion disaster assistance bill the House passed earlier this month.

Johanns made the administration's case against providing the $3.5 billion above current farm program benefits at a press briefing at the World Agricultural Forum's World Congress in St. Louis.

He noted that while he was Nebraska's governor, farmers suffered through droughts in four of six years. “I told our farmers then I thought that at some point ad hoc disaster programs would simply be impossible to pass,” he said.

Obviously, the secretary's opinion hasn't changed much. He and other spokesmen have argued against ad hoc disaster programs almost since hurricanes Katrina and Rita brought death and destruction to the Gulf Coast.

Some of the administration opposition appears to go back to the criticism President Bush received after signing the 2002 farm bill. Although the bill simply helped fill holes in the farm safety net, some characterized the bill as providing a “bonanza for wealthy farmers.”

In St. Louis, Johanns said the administration had “done a lot” to help farmers hammered by hurricanes, floods, droughts and frosts, although some observers said USDA's response often seemed slow in coming or targeted to specific states.

The disaster bill passed most recently by the House was part of the Iraq War emergency supplement appropriations measure. President Bush vetoed the bill because it contained a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. But the president also claimed the bill contained special interest provisions to garner votes.

One man's pork can be another man's lifeline. Try telling peanut growers who lose their farms because of a discrepancy in the 2002 farm bill that their storage payments were “excessive spending.”

Others say the bill would restore money removed from the farm bill under dubious circumstances. “In 2003, for the first time ever in Congress, this committee took money out of agriculture to pay for a disaster,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. “All disasters had always been paid for by the country at large, just as we do whenever there's a tornado, flood or hurricane.

“Then, in 2004, the committee did the same thing again. It took disaster money — $2.858 billion — out of agriculture, and that money has never been put back. I consider that money to have been stolen from agriculture to pay for disaster.”

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner has written a letter to this publication about a recent column (see Page 5). In it, the deputy secretary seems to contend the shifting baseline for agriculture is something to be celebrated even though it reflects transfers of money saved from agriculture to other government programs.

Sun Belt farmers should ask their lenders what impact the administration's proposal to reduce the cotton loan rate from 52 to 45 cents a pound will have on their ability to borrow money. Then we'll see who has reason to celebrate.