About 10 seconds after the Democrats reclaimed the House of Representatives last November, Collin Peterson, the Minnesotan who would lead the chamber’s Ag Committee come January, began to think about the 2007 farm bill.
About 10 seconds later, Peterson made it known that a key item on his farm bill wish list was a permanent disaster program to assist farmers and ranchers hit by weather calamities.
A permanent disaster program has always been a worthy, much-talked about idea. After all, rare is the season across America’s vast, fruited plains that droughts, floods, blizzards or worse don’t whip, wallop or wipe out farmers and ranchers.
Later. For decades, however, Congress and the White House responded to these natural devastations on an ad hoc – Latin for “I’ll worry about it when it happens” – basis.
This Scarlett O’Hara School of Management approach is about as smart and helpful as planning for retirement after you retire. Moreover, Congress has spent years ad hoc-ing – cobbling together – weather-related relief for farmers.
In July 24 testimony to the Senate Finance Committee on the need for a permanent disaster program, National Farmers Union President Tom Buis noted that, since 1998, Congress “has approved 23 ad hoc disaster bills totaling $47 billion.”
Twenty-three. Doesn’t the number itself scream for an on-the-shelf, rules-in-place disaster program that empowers USDA to respond ASAP to farmers, their families and communities should catastrophe strike?
Stalled. Peterson, as well as most of his committee members, thought so. But a legislative rule adopted by Congressional Democrats in early 2007 stalled farm bill action. The rule, called pay-go, means that if you could pay for new programs without raising taxes, you could go for it.
Backers of a permanent disaster program reckoned they needed about $1.25 billion per year for it. Finding the cash was difficult.
Their pay-go solution was to cut annual direct payments to farmers, totaling about $5 billion per year, by 20 percent and stash the cash as a permanent disaster fund.
The move, however, ran smack into cotton, rice, wheat and White House interests. All wanted to at least maintain the 2002 farm bill’s direct payment spending; the White House and the wheat boys actually wanted to increase it.
Comeback kid. They, with help from the American Farm Bureau, stopped the permanent disaster program idea dead. But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral; it staged the best comeback since the 1969 Mets.
Before sending the 2007 farm bill to the full House for a vote, Ag Committee members unanimously approved an en bloc amendment to it for programs – like permanent disaster – that all wanted but couldn’t fund.
On July 27, the House approved the farm bill, without the en bloc amendment, by a 231 to 191 vote. That maneuver allowed Peterson to put the clever amendment, and his hopes for a permanent disaster program, in his pocket.
Playing cards. In short, Peterson has the committee’s blessing to play that ace whenever someone finds the cash to pay for it. Many already suspect the U.S. Senate will be that someone.
Bipartisan efforts in its ag and finance committees suggest a disaster program will be part of the upper chamber’s farm bill proposal.
If accurate, Peterson need only play his en bloc card during Senate-House farm bill negotiations to get a disaster program into the final bill.
But should the Senate not bring permanent disaster relief to the negotiating table, Peterson still has his card to trump in with should an opportunity arise during the Senate-House farm bill conference.
However it’s done, a permanent disaster program needs to get done. In farm and ranch country, after all, neighbors help neighbors.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)
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