Almost before U.S. House members could exit the Capitol late Wednesday night following passage of an agriculture disaster relief bill, farm groups and legislators opposed to some provisions of the bill weighed in on what many consider action that opens up the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.

The bill, sponsored by Texas Representative Randy Neugebauer, passed by an overwhelming majority (412-0) as an amendment to the Disaster Relief Supplemental Appropriations Bill. Opponents, however, object to how relief will be funded. Money to help farmers who have suffered weather-related disasters throughout America would come from the Conservation Security Program, action some view as detrimental to the farm bill.

Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., views the bill as a mixed blessing.

“A significant portion of West Texas suffered crop losses in 2003, with almost one-third of the acres planted to cotton lost to hail last year,” said Steve Verett, PCG executive vice president.

“From that standpoint, approval of a disaster assistance package that (allows) producers to apply for benefits on either a 2003 or 2004 loss represents the fulfillment of one of the primary goals of the PCG Board of Directors, which was to make sure producers with 2003 losses were not left behind or forgotten in the attempt to supply weather related assistance to 2004 hurricane victims.”

Verett said PCG, the National Cotton Council and “virtually every other major farm group in the country, worked long and hard to obtain an agricultural disaster assistance package without budgetary offsets that would adversely impact any part of the current farm program.

“Our need for assistance on the High Plains, however, outweighed our preference for an offset free package.

“The end result in the House was a decision to discard other options and insist that agriculture be treated differently. We still believe it is unfair to demand budgetary offsets for assistance directed toward farmers and ranchers who suffered weather related losses, especially when assistance derived from similar circumstances is to be offered without offsets to non-agricultural hurricane victims.”

Verett voiced concern over opening up the 2002 farm bill.

“Lowering the Conservation Security Program spending cap to obtain funds required to support the agricultural assistance package sets a dangerous precedent and threatens to undermine the working relationship forged between agriculture and conservation interests who worked together to produce and protect the current farm program,” he said.

National Farmers Union President Dave Frederickson said that although he was “pleased to see the House finally take action in providing agriculture disaster relief to producers across the country … it is disappointing the House chose to require the assistance to be offset by cuts in the current farm bill.

“Once again U.S. farmers are being asked to sacrifice for weather-related disasters that are beyond their prediction and control. (The) action in the U.S. House of Representatives lacks basic common-sense; farmers and ranchers suffering from multi-year drought, an early frost, floods and other weather-related calamities have to pay for their disaster assistance, yet similar requirements are not placed upon producers who suffered a loss due to the recent hurricanes.

“President Bush requested emergency disaster assistance for impacted producers in Florida and the Southeast, yet failed to address the needs of producers in states such as Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Texas.”

Frederickson urged the House and Senate conferees to adopt a bipartisan Senate-passed emergency agriculture disaster assistance bill, which provides relief to all producers of all disasters in all states.

“A loss is a loss, and a disaster is a disaster,” he said. “American agricultural producers deserve equitable disaster assistance that is fair for all producers.”

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin said he would hold up the bill in conference as long as necessary to get drought aid that would not require tapping farm programs.

“We’re not leaving town,” Harkin said. “I intend to use every parliamentary means at my disposal. I intend to make it very painful.”

Neugebauer defended the bill. “I saw a need to help our farmers in a way that is fiscally responsible and does not touch the farm bill,” Neugebauer said. “I came to Washington to find solutions, and this much-needed disaster relief is a solution that will be a welcome sight for West Texas farmers.”

Neugebauer claims his amendment provides farmers relief without opening the farm bill or affecting commodity program spending. He said it also saves taxpayer money. His plan pays for the disaster relief by reinstating spending limits for the Conservation Security Program and stipulates that disaster assistance received by a farmer could not exceed 95 percent of the crop’s worth absent the disaster.

Both offsets, he said, were used in the last disaster package, which aided farmers across the country that suffered major losses in 2001 and 2002.

He said prospects for acceptance of a disaster relief bill would be weak without offsets for the costs of the bill.

The House Rules Committee rejected another amendment, offered a day earlier by Texas Representative Charlie Stenholm, ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture, and co-sponsored by Neugebauer.

Stenholm, who is running against Neugebauer in the newly designed Texas 19th district, a result of a re-districting plan passed last winter, expressed disappointment that the amendment cuts conservation funds and opens the farm bill to further intrusions.

“I was extremely disappointed with the action taken by the House of Representatives to reopen the 2002 farm bill to pay for agricultural disaster assistance for farmers and ranchers affected in 2003 and 2004,” he said.

“Earlier this week, I introduced legislation to compensate farmers and ranchers who were devastated by drought, flood, freezing weather and excessive rain in 2003 and 2004,” Stenholm said. “I did so after the President proposed an assistance package for hurricane victims, to be paid for with an emergency spending measure. Unfortunately, the President’s package did not include assistance for farmers and ranchers in other parts of the country.

“I am still convinced that H.R. 5203 or a similar bill is the most appropriate way to provide disaster assistance.”

Stenholm fears legislators will take even more cuts from the farm program. “I am concerned about reports that the entire farm bill may be opened to provide offsets to pay for disaster assistance,” Stenholm said. “We can provide disaster assistance to producers who need it, and we can provide this assistance in a manner consistent with the President's original request. We do not have to reopen the farm bill.

“I am hoping we can eliminate the politics interjected into this debate and provide assistance (on a bipartisan basis) to those who are suffering from disaster. I am optimistic that Tom Delay and the House Leadership will rethink their reported insistence on opening the farm bill to pay for this assistance.”

Stenholm said the Senate passed disaster assistance, as in H.R. 5203, in a bipartisan effort by voice vote. “Fairness requires that (we provide) assistance on the same basis for all producers. If we provide disaster assistance for hurricane victims, we also (should) provide relief for those affected by all natural disasters.”

Stenholm said he had support from a number of House colleagues and 25 farm groups for his bill.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., praised Neugebauer’s amendment. “This bill represents the only opportunity we see to get this job done before we go home,” he said.

House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, said passage by an overwhelming majority was “a credit to (Congressman Neugebauer’s) hard work.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com