What is in this article?:
• Rather than risk a fight over spending cuts for food stamps, the House passes a disaster aid bill aimed at helping ranchers.
• Democrats complain bill takes money from conservation programs to pay for disaster legislation that should have been reauthorized last year.
• Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman says House simply "kicked the can down the road" on reauthorizing the farm bill.
Dug in their heels
The pair dug in their heels over the strategy despite calls from many sides to pass a new farm bill and get to conference before current law expires in late September. The full Senate passed its version of the farm bill on June 20.
While many in U.S. agriculture are feeling the effects of the worst drought in over 50 years, proponents of the disaster legislation say ranchers are especially vulnerable as feed prices have risen and hay fields are desiccated. Programs designed to aid ranchers in such circumstances expired last year. Facing ruin and uncertainty, many ranchers have liquidated herds.
The rancher assistance comes at the expense of conservation programs, which will take a hit of over $600 million, a trade-off that left environmental groups and Democrats upset. They questioned the sense of cutting conservation programs when the current drought carries substantial environmental threats.
“In order to pay for this assistance package, the House will eliminate funding for critical conservation programs — programs that help farmers employ practices that protect soil and water and actually mitigate the harm that drought and excessive heat can cause,” said Justin Tatham, senior Washington representative for Union of Concerned Scientists Food & Environment Program.
“Passing a drought assistance package at the expense of conservation programs is short-sighted, at best. Instead of taking money from the extravagant commodity subsidies, the House plans to cut programs that would help farmers cope better with future droughts.”
Despite such criticism, Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, House Agriculture Committee chairman, wanted to “be very clear on why we are here on the floor today. In 2008, the Congress passed a farm bill that did not provide a final year of disaster assistance. I have heard people calling this ‘extending disaster assistance by a year.’ No. What we are doing is fixing a problem.
“We are backfilling a hole or fixing a deficiency. I am not here to point fingers. I was elected to fix problems. We have a drought. We don’t have a disaster program. I am here to provide a solution.”
Lucas acknowledged those displeased with the conservation program cuts but said, in the end, the programs could weather the cuts. “Some people do not like how we paid for the bill. Quite frankly, I don’t either. … Ten years ago, in fiscal year 2002 we authorized $200 million in EQIP spending.
“In fiscal year 2009, we authorized $1.34 billion and for fiscal year 2013 we authorized $1.75 billion. Yes, we are cutting real dollars: $350 million that will not go to our farmers and ranchers to help comply with the enormous regulations facing them.
“But, at the end of the day this will be the largest amount of money ever to be spent on the EQIP program, seven times as much as we spent in 2002.
“The other offset is the CSP program, which was vastly improved in 2008. We are limiting enrollment for one year to 11 million acres. For those of you here in 2008 who voted for the farm bill, the CSP program in the House bill had zero dollars, zero.
“In the just-passed Ag Committee farm bill, we limited CSP to 9 million acres. I greatly respect the conservation community, but to hear them say we are destroying conservation programs could not be farther from the truth.”