FarmPolicy

September 16, 2014

House – Senate Differ on Disaster Aid- as U.S. Drought Worsens

Jennifer Steinhauer reported in today’s New York Times that, “An effort to provide emergency aid for American ranchers and farmers reeling from a year of drought, frost and other calamities collapsed on Thursday as members of Congress departed for their five-week August recess, leaving behind a pile of unfinished legislation as they go home to campaign for re-election.

After refusing to consider a sweeping five-year farm measure, House Republican leaders jammed through a short-term $383 million package of loans and grants for livestock producers and a limited number of farmers. The measure passed 223 to 197, a narrow margin for a bill that has an impact on so many states. But Democrats balked in protest over the way the farm legislation has been handled and some Republicans objected to the costs.

Democratic leaders in the Senate, which had already passed a bipartisan five-year bill, refused to take up the House measure, faulting House Republican leaders for failing to consider the broader legislation in time.”

The Times noted that, “‘I’m not passing a bill that only covers some producers,’ said Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Moments after the House passed its bill, Ms. Stabenow took to the Senate floor to say that lawmakers would instead work informally over the August recess to try to put together a new measure to present to Congress when it meets in September. The White House would have considered the House measure, but she resisted, Senate aides said.”  [Note: Sen. Stabenow's full remarks from yesterday on the floor can be heard here (MP3- 18:02) , while a key portion of her remarks can be heard here (MP3- 2:48)].

“Ms. Stabenow, who worked for months to arm-twist resistant Senate colleagues on both side of the aisle to usher her bill through her chamber, said she would begin meeting with House agriculture leaders on Thursday night. ‘I am extremely hopeful that we can get together around what really needs to be done, which is a five-year farm bill,’ she said.”

Ms. Steinhauer pointed out that, “Republicans criticized the Senate for declining to take up their measure.

“‘It would appear this is the only vehicle,’ said Representative Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, who has patiently endured his Republican leadership’s abandonment of his bill, the first time the House has declined to bring its own committee’s bill to the floor. ‘No matter what happens in the farm bill process, nothing can happen for months and months. If you want to leave people hurting, I guess that’s your choice.’

“Senator Roy D. Blunt, Republican of Missouri, expressed a similar view. ‘The idea that we would decide that we would put this off another month,’ he said, ‘that we can put these families in jeopardy for another month, not knowing what their solution is, just seems to me to be totally unacceptable.’”

A news release yesterday from Senate Ag Committee Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) stated that, “[Sen. Roberts] today said critical assistance to the nation’s livestock producers devastated by historic drought conditions was ignored by Senate Democrats for partisan gain.

“‘I am outraged the Senate Democrats left town without even considering the House passed disaster package,’ said Roberts. ‘They are playing politics with a devastating drought. Make no mistake – the consequences of Senate inaction on this historic drought will not only be felt at home in Kansas, they will be felt in rising food prices at dinner tables across the nation.’”

Pete Kasperowicz reported yesterday at The Hill’s Floor Action Blog that, “Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) blasted the Senate for not acting on the bill before leaving for the break. ‘I want a farm bill, too, but they should not be playing games with disaster aid,’ she said, adding that ‘the people deserve to know they are playing games.’”

Lisa Mascaro reported today at the Los Angeles Times Online that, “The vote in the House was 223 to 197, with 35 mostly farm-state Democrats joining Republicans in support. Most Democrats held out for the broader bill.

“‘This House should not go home while literally hanging our ranchers out to dry without a safety net to get through this drought,’ said freshman Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), who is from a ranching family.

Democrats, who control the Senate, prefer the broader farm bill, which would provide more robust drought relief to other agricultural sectors. Democrats also object to the GOP’s plan to offset the costs by cutting conservation funds.” (Note that Chairman Lucas addressed funding related issues in an exchange on Wednesday with Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.) during the Rules Committee hearing on the House disaster measure.  On the floor yesterday, Rep. Mike Conaway (R., Tex.) also addressed funding issues (MP3- 1:10) for the disaster measure.  Rep. Leonard Boswell (D., Iowa) yesterday   “expressed frustration with cuts coming to important conservation programs, particularly since these programs have been one option to help feed cattle during drought emergencies.”  And, during a floor speech yesterday, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R., Tex.) pointed out (MP3- 0:48) that the disaster bill saves $256 million).

David Rogers reported yesterday at Politico that, “The hastily assembled livestock bill — adopted 223-197 — promises some political cover for Republican candidates in farm states. But it quickly stalled Thursday night in the Senate where the Agriculture Committee leadership is demanding that the House first deal with the larger farm bill.

“‘By refusing to bring up the farm bill, House leadership is doing what Congress always does – kicking the can down the road instead of coming together to solve problems,’ said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chairs the Senate Ag panel.

“‘If Congress does not pass a farm bill, there will be no reform, direct payments will continue, we’ll lose the opportunity for major deficit reduction and we’ll deliver a real blow to our economic recovery.’”

Mr. Rogers noted that, “The disaster package ‘is a sad substitute for what is really needed —a long term farm policy,’ said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee [complete floor statement here]. And in his strongest statement to date, Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) seemed to recite back the words of Speaker John Boehner in asking that the leadership allow the larger five-year bill to come to the floor.

“‘I believe in the legislative process. I believe in letting the House work its will,’ Lucas said. ‘We did it in the House Agriculture Committee and we can do it here, too.’

“‘Go home and see your constituents for the next five weeks,’ the chairman later exhorted his colleagues. ‘Go home and discuss the drought in that 65 percent of United States that is suffering … Build the momentum to come back here and do the farm bill.’”

(The floor statement on the disaster aid measure from Chairman Lucas is available here, as is a statement from the Chairman after the bill passed. To listen to closing remarks from the House floor debate yesterday on the disaster measure from Ranking Member Peterson and Chairman Lucas, just click here (MP3- 3:17)).

Mr. Rogers added that, “[House Speaker John Boehner] showed no sign of relenting, saying that Lucas lacked the support to move forward because of divisions in the House over food-stamp funding in the nutrition title of the farm bill. ‘Frankly I haven’t seen 218 votes in the middle to pass a farm bill,’ the speaker told reporters [related audio (MP3- 1:02)].  But having already won Senate passage in June, Stabenow is equally determined to keep the focus on finding some compromise.”

“‘We need to get it done,’ Stabenow said in a Senate floor speech after the House vote. ‘We’re racing against the clock right now.’”

The Politico article indicated that, “‘It is our goal to do one of two things,’ Stabenow said. ‘Have the opportunity to come together in September and offer something that would be a compromise between the House and Senate … That’s the best thing—and include comprehensive disaster assistance as a part of that. That’s far-and-way what we are hearing from farm country.’

But ‘if for some reason or not, we are not able to succeed’ Stabenow opened the door to a stand-alone disaster-aid bill September, albeit broader than the House package.

“‘We will assess all of what needs to happen and come back to approve a very comprehensive disaster assistance program,’ she said, ‘Not just for livestock—as important as that is—but all of our communities.’”  [Note:  Related audio on this point from Sen. Stabenow during yesterday’s floor speech is available here (MP3- 2:48)).

Mike Lillis reported yesterday at The Hill Online that, “The GOP’s drought assistance bill, slated for a floor vote Thursday, is just the latest symptom of Republicans’ inability to govern, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi charged Thursday.

“The California Democrat said Republicans’ decision to take up the one-year emergency drought measure in lieu of a broader, longer-term farm bill ‘is indicative of the failure of this do-nothing Republican Congress’ [related audio (MP3- 2:06)].”

Meanwhile, House lawmakers offered different perspectives on yesterday’s disaster aid vote.

Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa) indicated that, “‘I am pleased that the House acted today to provide some assistance to those in our state’s and nation’s ag community who have been hit hard by this record drought,’ said King. ‘I am troubled, though, that our leaders here in the House decided that this is all the legislative action that could be mustered to support the ag industry. I worked hard with the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Committee to pass a bi-partisan Farm Bill out of the House Agriculture Committee. In the weeks since the Committee’s approval of the bill, I have been urging House leaders to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.’

“‘Conversations I’ve had with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle tell me that the votes are there to get the Farm Bill through the House and to Conference with the Senate.’”

A news item yesterday form Rep. Tom Latham (R., Iowa) noted that, “Latham has expressed his great frustration with the gridlock that has hampered consideration of a new Farm Bill to replace the measure expiring at the end of September. In his floor statement on Thursday, Latham was very adamant that House leaders must move quickly on bringing the long-term farm policy measure up for consideration to give all of agriculture certainty for the future.”

Rep. Rick Crawford (R., Ark.) noted yesterday that, “Passing a five-year Farm Bill is still my priority and I will continue working with other members of the Agriculture Committee during August to express the need for sound agriculture policies. The challenges our farmers currently face only further illustrates the need for a Farm Bill.”

California Congressman Jim Costa (D) tweeted yesterday that, “This #drought relief bill is more about politics than policy. We need a #FarmBill;” while, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R., Neb.) tweeted yesterday that, “As I said on the House floor, ‘Just like farmers in Nebraska are hoping for rain, I’m hoping for a five-year #FarmBill.’”

Meanwhile, Erik Wasson reported yesterday at The Hill’s On the Money Blog that, “A bipartisan group of rural lawmakers launched an effort Thursday to try to force the House to take up the five-year farm bill that passed out of the House Agriculture Committee.

“The group is seeking support for a discharge petition that would put the farm bill on the calendar, whether or not House GOP leaders approve…Reps. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), Rick Berg (R-N.D.), Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) are leading the discharge effort. Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) is gathering signatures from the GOP side.”  [Correction: FarmPolicy.com has been informed that Rep. Noem is not gathering signatures for this petition.]

In other Farm Bill news, Bloomberg writer Alan Bjerga reported yesterday that, “U.S. food-stamp use rose 0.5 percent in May from the previous month, the government said.

“About 46.497 million Americans received aid, up from 46.275 million in April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said on its website. Participation was 2.4 percent higher than a year earlier and the most since December, the USDA said.”

With respect to the 2012 drought, Alyssa A. Botelho and Joel Achenbach reported in today’s Washington Post that, “The historic drought of 2012 is intensifying in the most parched areas of the American heartland [related graph], roasting much of the corn and soybean crop, scorching the grasslands and pastures essential for cattle grazing, and threatening to send food prices surging in the United States and abroad.

“More than a fifth of the contiguous United States rates as being in an ‘extreme’ or ‘exceptional’ drought, according to official statistics released Thursday. And it’s hot out there: Government ­meteorologists say this has been the hottest year on record in the lower 48 states, and there are still four more weeks of August. In the driest areas of the Great Plains and the Midwest, there are dismayingly few dark clouds on the horizon.”

The Post article noted that, “This year was supposed to have a bumper crop of corn, with 96.4 million acres planted. But the new numbers from the National Drought Mitigation Center, based at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, show the drought intensifying in the Corn Belt. Nearly 40 million acres of corn are baking in drought conditions rated extreme or worse.”

Reuters writer Karl Plume reported yesterday that, “The worst U.S. drought in 56 years intensified over the past week as above-normal temperatures and scant rainfall parched corn and soybean crops across the Midwest and central Plains, a report from climate experts said on Thursday.”

The National Weather Service at Little Rock, Ark. Online included this graphical illustration of the approximate percentage of cattle located in drought.

And a tweet yesterday from The Financial Times Commodities noted that, “Rabobank sees US #soybean yields at 38bu/ac, crop at 2.8bn bu with potential to fall to 2.6bn vs USDA July wasde at 3.05bn. #drought12”

In related news, Zack Colman reported yesterday at The Hill’s Energy Blog that, “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should waive a corn ethanol production target for as long as possible to reduce costs for ranchers, a bipartisan group of lawmakers said Thursday.

“The congressmen discussed a letter signed by 156 legislators that urges EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to scale back the renewable fuel standard (RFS) in the face of a nationwide drought.

“Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said the shortage of corn combined with this year’s target of blending 13.2 billion gallons of corn ethanol into traditional transportation fuel has increased operational costs for livestock companies in his district.”

Yesterday’s update added that, “Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Jim Costa (D-Calif.), who sponsored a bill that would let the EPA reduce the corn ethanol target by as much as 50 percent when corn stocks run low, also implored Jackson to invoke the RFS waiver.”

In a separate update yesterday at The Hill’s Energy Blog, Mr. Colman reported that, “A pair of ethanol industry trade groups on Thursday accused lawmakers and livestock groups of spreading misinformation to kill a rule that promotes corn ethanol production.”

The update noted that, “But Renewable Fuels Association CEO Bob Dinneen said the rule should only be waived when ethanol refiners say they cannot meet the rule’s production targets. He added that this won’t happen this year.

“‘The bottom line is this — the RFS is about refiners being able to meet their obligations,’ Dinneen said. ‘Refiners can meet their obligations because of the flexibility built into this program.’”

“Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis said he’s never heard a ‘bigger whopper’ in Washington than the argument that the RFS is hurting food supplies,” The Hill item said.

University of Illinois Agricultural Economists Scott Irwin and Darrel Good have provided recent analysis on the RFS issue, see this update posted yesterday at the farmdoc daily blog titled, “Ethanol—Does the RFS Matter?

Keith Good

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