First, Rep. John Thune, the Republican candidate, wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman on Sept. 12, asking her to consider using Section 32 funds to help livestock producers survive until the Congress can pass a more comprehensive assistance package for the 2001 and 2002 crops.

Then, on Sept. 16, Sen. Tim Johnson, the incumbent in the South Dakota race, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the senior senator from the state, wrote a letter to President Bush asking him to divert funds from the child nutrition program to help farmers suffering from the drought.

Someone forwarded a copy of the Daschle-Johnson letter to Jim Wiesemeyer, editor of Inside Washington Today. It wasn’t too long after it appeared in the column that calls from the Republican camp began pointing out that Thune’s letter pre-dated the South Dakota senators’ letter by four days.

In his letter, Thune noted that the Senate had approved a drought assistance package as an amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill, but that the legislation was still some days from passage.

“While the Senate has not yet completed consideration of this bill, livestock producers need immediate help,” said Thune. “Still, I am concerned that the legislative process may take more time than struggling producers can afford.

“In particular, livestock producers in South Dakota cannot wait any longer for help. Their needs are immediate and the timing of assistance could be the difference in whether or not these ranchers survive.

Thune thanked Veneman for her earlier decision to use the remaining Section 32 funds for fiscal year 2002 to provide $150 million in emergency feed assistance. “I understand that Section 32 funds will be replenished on Oct. 1 from customs duties,” he said. “I would therefore urge you to use your authority to make the necessary funds available for livestock losses.”

The available Section 32 funds, he said, could meet livestock producer’s need for direct financial assistance without increasing the budget deficit, a move the administration opposes.

“I cannot stress enough how serious the drought is in South Dakota and the need for immediate relief for the livestock sector,” Thune noted. “I, therefore, urge you to use unobligated funds for fiscal year 2003 to assist livestock producers who have suffered from the drought.

The letter from Daschle and Johnson showed some exasperation with the administration’s efforts to address the drought through emergency haying and grazing orders and releases of conservation funds without providing more funding above the cost of the new farm bill.

“For 214 days, we have urged you to support immediate emergency natural disaster assistance,” they said in their letter. “As you know, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan emergency natural disaster assistance package for America’s farmers and ranchers by a vote of 79 to 16.

“We believe this proposal, which has the support of 31 major farm organizations, is absolutely necessary and the most effective way to provide meaningful and immediate assistance to producers coping with the relentless drought and other natural disasters. We respectfully urge you to review your position and support this approach.

The senators said they continue to urge the administration to do all it can to assist farmers and ranchers with the existing resources available at USDA, including the use of discretionary programs.

“In this regard, we believe that Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has broad authority under 7 U.S.C. 612c, commonly referred to as “Section 32,” to direct existing USDA funds for emergency disaster assistance.”

While Section 32 funding normally is used to pay for direct purchases of farm products and commodities for use in school lunch programs, the senators cited a Congressional Research Service report that USDA has a fiscal year 2002 balance of several hundred million dollars remaining in those funds.

“We reiterate our call on you do all that you can with existing authorities and suggest that you immediately provide emergency drought aid for America’s producers from this fund,” they said.

“While we recognize that the primary functions of Section 32 is to support important child nutrition programs and commodity purchases, we nevertheless believe that a portion of the Section 32 balance should be devoted to disaster assistance. Such funding could serve as a partial bridge of assistance for producers until action has been taken on a comprehensive natural disaster assistance package.

There were reports that USDA might announce the use of Section 32 funds for disaster assistance later this week.

Thune is also co-sponsoring House legislation that includes language similar to the Senate amendment to the Interior appropriations bill that would provide $6 billion in disaster relief and has asked Speaker Dennis Hastert to move forward on the legislation before the House adjourns in early October.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com