Thursday, May 04, 2006

Leading Democrat on House Agriculture Committee Speaks Out

I would like to draw your attention to an op-ed written today by my colleague, Collin Peterson (D-MN), Ranking Member on the House Agriculture Committee, who is leading the effort to secure disaster assistance for farmers throughout rural America. His piece reflects the frustration in our community and reminds President Bush about the importance of preserving a strong farm economy.

Shifting Priorities: How an Election Year Helps Agriculture Recover From Disaster

By Congressman Collin C. Peterson

Hurricanes, floods, droughts, and other natural disasters don’t respect political boundaries, and when disaster strikes, entire communities are affected. But, when it comes to recovery from natural disasters, politics seem to shape the Bush Administration’s response.

Right now, farmers and ranchers in communities across the country are suffering not only from crop and livestock losses caused by devastating natural disasters, but also from sky-rocketing input costs resulting from the high price of fuel and fertilizer. In disaster-stricken communities in the Gulf Coast and Southern states, across the Midwest into Northwest Minnesota, farmers throughout the country are struggling to stay in business as their needs continue to go unmet.

In spite of this dismal reality, the White House warned Congress this week that the President will veto emergency agriculture disaster assistance if it is sent to him.

Recognizing the need for disaster aid, last fall, Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee proposed emergency disaster assistance for agriculture. Our effort was defeated by a party-line vote. My colleague, Congressman Marion Berry of Arkansas also offered a disaster assistance provision in the Appropriations Committee, and that amendment was defeated by House Republicans as well.

As time passes, some Congressional Republicans have joined our efforts to provide relief. I have joined with Congressman Jo Bonner of Alabama for a strong, bipartisan push to get disaster assistance for agriculture. We introduced the Emergency Disaster Assistance Act of 2006 (H.R. 5099), which now has 44 co-sponsors in the House, including 18 Republicans.

Last month, a Senate committee included an amendment to provide agriculture disaster assistance in the emergency supplemental bill. We thought we were finally making some progress in our effort to bring some relief to farmers and ranchers hit hard by disasters.

The President issued a Statement of Administration Policy for that bill opposing the amendment to provide emergency disaster assistance. The statement says that when you look at agriculture on a national level, production levels have been strong for many crops this past year. But, we all know that nationwide facts and figures don’t tell the story of the communities where production was devastated, and farmers and ranchers have seen little relief from the 2002 Farm Bill or crop insurance.

The Bush Administration’s response to recent farm disasters could not be more different than the response to disasters in 2004. In that year -- when the President was after Florida’s electoral votes -- the Administration’s efforts to help that State’s hurricane victims were swift and decisive. The hurricane victims in the Gulf are no less worthy.

Farmers and ranchers in the Gulf Coast region have waited more than eight months now for the Bush Administration to respond to their desperate need for disaster relief. In the aftermath of the hurricanes that struck Florida in 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not wait for Congress to pass disaster assistance, and after only 2 months, they had a program in place to get the first payments for the Florida Hurricane Agricultural Disaster Assistance Fund to affected farmers. On top of that, in 2004 Congress also passed disaster relief for agriculture, and that bill was signed into law by the President in October.

In the same document that the President used to announce his opposition to agriculture disaster assistance, he also expressed his strong support for $2.3 billion in funding to prepare for a possible bird flu pandemic that has not even reached our nation’s shores. Although I recognize the need to prepare for potential future emergencies and applaud efforts to strengthen our public health infrastructure, it only makes sense that we need to address the disasters that are hurting our communities now, even as we prepare for future threats.

President Bush seems out of touch with the realities of what disasters can do to farmers in our country. Apparently, the only way to put the President back in touch with reality is to hold an election.