HOUSE VOTES FOR $11 BILLION SUPPLEMENTAL HURRICANE AID PACKAGE
On Wednesday the House voted for a supplemental hurricane aid package totaling nearly $11 billion that included aid is for states that were affected by damage due to Hurricane Jeanne and Ivan. The bill includes $507 million specifically for agriculture producers who suffered from crop losses in 2003 and 2004 and to provide repairs for damaged rangeland and pastureland.
An amendment Representative Neugebarger (R-TX) was passed by voice vote that would provide $3 billion in emergency disaster assistance for crop and livestock producers who have suffered losses during the 2003 or 2004 agriculture production years due to natural disasters. This legislation was similar to a bill introduced earlier this week in the House of Representatives by Representatives Everett and Stenholm (D-TX). However, the amendment that was added to the hurricane supplemental had spending offsets by capping the Conservation Reserve Program payments at $6 billion. Even though such disaster assistance in previous years had not been required to be offset, this amendment reopened the farm bill once again. As a result the scaled down supplemental bill will likely go to conference to either be inserted in the Homeland Security bill that contains the $3.1 billion in drought aid passed by the Senate or to be offered as a stand alone bill in the Senate. The Senate version of the disaster bill does not contain corresponding offsets. This sets up a showdown between House conservatives who do not favor any more assistant to agricultural producers without corresponding cuts in farm programs to pay for this assistance versus a large majority of both House and Senate members who favor larger disaster assistance since many areas of the country have already experienced natural disasters.
Dozens of farm groups including the Alabama Farmers Federation had written the House and Senate to urge them not to reopen the farm bill and to not require offsetting cuts. It is fundamentally unfair to ask farmers to give up benefits when they have suffered a natural disaster. The farm bill was never intended to address catastrophic losses by natural disasters, only market losses.
The House supplemental bill largely mirrors the Administration's request and contains emergency assistance to producers who have obtained crop insurance through the federal Risk Management Agency and would pay producers at 50 percent of the established insurance policy price for that crop. Producers who do not have coverage for their crop because crop insurance is not offered would also be eligible for payment at 50 percent of the state average price. However, this proposal contains a payment limit of $80,000 per producer and also a means test that requires producer's to certify their income from agriculture production.
USDA had previously provided $500 million to Florida using existing FY 04 funds, however USDA's authority and resources are inadequate given the full scope of the weather and disease problems. For example, the Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture estimates losses to the state due to the first two hurricanes exceeds $950 million. Additionally, the House supplemental and USDA both have announced NO programs to provide for the more than $700 million in damage to Alabama's private forests. The House Appropriations Committee want to add at least another $1-2 billion in relief to this supplemental but were denied that chance by the House Rules Committee because of the price tag. Chairman Young (R-FL) has promised to try and add that funding back in conference. Representative Jo Bonner (R-AL), a member of the House Agriculture Committee whose congressional district was the most severely impacted by Hurricane Ivan, said, "I am pleased that agricultural disaster assistance funding was included in the Disaster Relief Supplemental. This funding will provide much-needed relief for those farmers most affected by weather-related disasters across the country, particularly the recent devastating hurricanes impacting the southeastern United States. In the weeks ahead, we will continue to look for ways to help Alabama's farmers recover from the tremendous losses they have suffered." Representative Terry Everett, (R-AL), the senior member of the House Agriculture committee from Alabama, commented, "I have long held to the belief that a nation that cannot feed itself also cannot defend itself. Our country's security is tied to a number of factors, including the ability of our farmers to reliably provide food and fiber to over 300 million people. It is very risky to take American agriculture for granted and in a time when bad weather is on the rise we must take steps to ensure that farmers are protected. I am pleased to support Charlie Stenholm's bill to afford emergency disaster assistance to America's producers for losses in the 2003 and 2004 crop years due to severe weather conditions. It is not only the right thing to do, but is vital to America's continued economic security." Representative Mike Rogers (R-AL), also a member of the House Agriculture Committee, commented, "Alabama's economy depends on the health of its farms, and I hope Congress acts quickly on this legislation to help ensure our farmers recover fully from this year's devastating storms." Earlier this year Congress passed $2 billion on September 6 to provide for aid after damage from Hurricane Charley, and the White House subsequently asked for additional funds totaling $10.2 billion to address damage incurred by Hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. It is expected that Congress will try and finish the Homeland Security bill by this Saturday and adjourn until after the November elections. Also this week, the House and Senate are poised to pass a corporate tax bill that would contain tax breaks for timber owners and also renewable fuels. Congress had been working on this legislation to address a recent World Trade Organization ruling that the U.S. had illegally subsidized our exports and distorted world trade, and the European Union had slapped punitive tariffs on the U.S. timber industry in retaliation. Congress is expected to adjourn this week until the November election and then return the third week of November to take up the omnibus appropriations bill since the current continuing resolution that funds the new fiscal year expires November 20, 2004.