The House passed $383 million in disaster aid to help U.S. ranchers hammered by the drought engulfing much of the United States. The vote for the Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act, H.R. 6233, was 223-197 and came just before Congress recessed for five weeks. Thirty-five Democrats voted in favor of the bill, 46 Republicans voted against it.

The livestock assistance comes after weeks of House leadership refusal to bring the farm bill passed out of the House Agriculture Committee on July 11 to the chamber’s floor. House Speaker John Boehner and Majority leader Eric Cantor were frightened the House farm bill – disparaged by Republicans as too expensive and by Democrats as cutting nutrition programs ruthlessly – would have led to a withering, politically-damaging debate in the lead-up to November elections. The pair dug in their heels over the strategy despite calls from many sides to pass a new farm bill and get to conference before current law expires in late September. The full Senate passed its version of the farm bill on June 20.

While many in U.S. agriculture are feeling the effects of the worst drought in over 50 years, proponents of the disaster legislation say ranchers are especially vulnerable as feed prices have risen and hay fields are desiccated. Programs designed to aid ranchers in such circumstances expired last year. Facing ruin and uncertainty, many ranchers have liquidated herds.

The rancher assistance comes at the expense of conservation programs, which will take a hit of over $600 million, a trade-off that left environmental groups and Democrats upset. They questioned the sense of cutting conservation programs when the current drought carries substantial environmental threats.

“In order to pay for this assistance package, the House will eliminate funding for critical conservation programs -- programs that help farmers employ practices that protect soil and water and actually mitigate the harm that drought and excessive heat can cause,” said Justin Tatham, senior Washington representative for Union of Concerned Scientists Food & Environment Program. “Passing a drought assistance package at the expense of conservation programs is short-sighted, at best. Instead of taking money from the extravagant commodity subsidies, the House plans to cut programs that would help farmers cope better with future droughts.”

Despite such criticism, Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, House Agriculture Committee chairman, wanted to “be very clear of why we are here on the floor today. In 2008, the Congress passed a farm bill that did not provide a final year of disaster assistance.  I have heard people calling this ‘extending disaster assistance by a year.’ No.  What we are doing is fixing a problem. 

“We are backfilling a hole or fixing a deficiency. I am not here to point fingers. I was elected to fix problems. We have a drought. We don’t have a disaster program. I am here to provide a solution.”

Lucas acknowledged those displeased with the conservation program cuts but said, in the end, the programs could weather the cuts.“Some people do not like how we paid for the bill. Quite frankly, I don’t either. … Ten years ago, in fiscal year 2002 we authorized $200 million in EQIP spending. In fiscal year 2009, we authorized $1.34 billion and for fiscal year 2013 we authorized $1.75 billion. Yes, we are cutting real dollars:  $350 million that will not go to our farmers and ranchers to help comply with the enormous regulations facing them. But, at the end of the day this will be the largest amount of money ever to be spent on the EQIP program, seven times as much as we spent in 2002.

“The other offset is the CSP program, which was vastly improved in 2008. We are limiting enrollment for one year to 11 million acres. For those of you here in 2008 who voted for the farm bill, the CSP program in the House bill had zero dollars, zero. In the just-passed Ag Committee farm bill, we limited CSP to 9 million acres. I greatly respect the conservation community, but to hear them say we are destroying conservation programs could not be farther from the truth.”

While the farm bill remains his priority, said Lucas, “most pressing business before us is to provide disaster assistance to those producers impacted by the drought conditions who are currently exposed. It is as simple as that: there is a problem out there, let’s fix it.”

In his floor remarks, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, had a blistering assessment of Boehner and Cantor. He laid out the timeline for the House farm bill and how the chamber had settled instead on disaster legislation. “(Lucas) and I were ready to mark-up our bill at the end of June but the Republican Leadership stepped in and said they wanted to consider the agriculture appropriations bill first. So, we held off to participate in the agriculture appropriations debate, which the leadership ultimately didn’t even bring to the floor. This delayed the committee’s mark-up by two weeks.

“The committee completed our work on July 11, passing a new five-year farm bill on a 35-11 bipartisan vote. Rather than bringing this bill to the floor the House has instead focused on messaging bills that are going nowhere. Now, I understand that this is an election year and the majority wants to promote their message; I’ve even voted for some of these bills. But you would think that after delaying us by two weeks the leadership could have found two days on the House calendar to consider the committee’s farm bill before the August recess.

“Instead of bringing up the five-year farm bill the Republican Leadership last week put forward a one-year farm bill extension, hoping to delay action until the next Congress with hopes to dismantle the farm and food safety nets. Fortunately, under intense opposition from those in agriculture, the leadership had to pull the bill.”

As for the livestock disaster legislation, said Peterson, “providing assistance to livestock producers -- primarily cattle and sheep -- is necessary and important, but this is not a comprehensive disaster package. Dairy and specialty crop producers will be left hurting and there is no assistance for pork and poultry producers.

“The (House) Agriculture Committee’s farm bill not only includes the livestock provisions we’re considering today, it also strengthens the farm safety net for a wide range of commodities. A five-year farm bill will do a better job of providing certainty for American agriculture and assistance during this period of drought.”

Following the disaster bill passing, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, lamented the inability of the House to pass a new farm bill.

“It’s deeply troubling that the House would leave farmers and small businesses in the lurch at a time when our agriculture economy is vulnerable and facing incredible uncertainty,” said Stabenow. “A five-year farm bill not only provides the immediate relief producers need to battle drought and disaster, it also gives farmers the long-term certainty and additional tools they need to keep growing and creating jobs over the long-term.

“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. 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."