November 3, 2006
A discharge petition to pry disaster assistance legislation out of the House Agriculture Committee and onto the House floor came only 20 signatures shy of the 218 needed to discharge the bill by the time Congress recessed on Sept. 30.
Dana Brooks, farm policy specialist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that the inaction was unfortunate because of the scope of the natural disasters affecting farmers and ranchers across the country both this year and last year. She said that almost 80 percent of the nation's counties were declared disaster areas in 2005, and more than 60 percent have been declared so far this year.
"It's very critical that farmers and ranchers get this assistance as soon as possible," Brooks said. On top of last year's hurricanes, she said, "We had floods. We've had fires. We've had droughts."
The 11th-hour discharge effort was introduced by Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) to move a disaster bill in the House. Congress will return to Washington after Nov. 9 to pass several overdue appropriations bills. In the meantime, the discharge petition remains open for signatures. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who introduced a disaster bill earlier this year, said he remained optimistic that Congress would consider disaster assistance in November.
"We are disappointed that it wasn't addressed this week, but we certainly will not give up on the fight to get disaster assistance out to our farmers and ranchers," Peterson said in a Sept. 30 statement.
AFBF was one of 32 farm groups urging members of Congress to support the petition.
"There are myriad nationwide agricultural disastersfrom coast to coast. Congress should not continue to fail to act," the groups wrote to all members of Congress on Sept. 25.
It is unclear how much assistance the Peterson bill would provide. A Peterson aide pointed out that the discharge petition was written in a way that would allow a vote on either the current bill or a substitute yet to be introduced in the House.
Meanwhile, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who is pushing a $4.9 billion disaster bill in the Senate, has said that disaster relief will be his top priority when Congress reconvenes.
"This fight is far from over," Conrad said in a prepared statement.
He and a number of Republican and Democratic agricultural-state senators attempted to take up disaster aid before Congress recessed, but they were unable to get unanimous consent to bring the bill to the floor.
Conrad scaled down his Emergency Farm Relief Act (S. 3991) from the $6 billion bill he offered in early September, dropping $1.9 billion in aid to farmers and ranchers with high energy costs. Conrad's bill would aid farmers with yield losses of more than 35 percent, quality losses and damage to livestock feed supplies in 2005 and 2006. It also would provide payments to ranchers with livestock losses due to natural disasters.
Congress has, so far, provided only $500 million in aid for farmers affected by last year's hurricanes. Congress has not passed disaster assistance for farmers coping with drought, wildfires, floods or other natural disasters of the last two years.
Meanwhile, it appears the disasters are affecting not just farmers, but also at least one connected industry: farm equipment manufacturers and dealers. Both Deere & Co. and Agco Corp., makers of tractors and combines, are reporting lower third-quarter sales of agricultural equipment in North America. Deere said the decline was due in part to the drought, as well as rising costs of energy and other inputs.