With farmers navigating dire financial straits and mid-term elections rapidly approaching, many rural state Democrats are pushing Republicans to pass agriculture disaster assistance.

To ratchet up the pressure, a discharge petition (H. Res. 998) has been introduced by Congressman John Barrow, a Democrat from Georgia. If the petition passes, Congress would be forced to debate agriculture assistance before recess Sept. 29.

“The reason this discharge petition is being circulated is because of what we’ve been hearing from farmers and ranchers back home,” said Barrow during a Sept. 26 press conference involving Democratic backers of the petition. “I had a number of meetings with farmers over August recess. The number one concern they expressed was a need for comprehensive drought assistance relief, right now — and we’re talking about direct assistance, not just another loan.”

At one hearing, he said, “a good (farming) friend…told me, ‘I need another loan like I need a hole in the head.’ He grows cotton and soybeans and his crops have been devastated by the drought.

“I had farmers tell me they’re literally inches away from leaving farming altogether. We can’t let that happen…This Congress can do better than to string our farmers along or hold them hostage to one low-interest loan after another while they’re barely hanging on.”

Based on USDA figures, this year in Georgia alone, “production value losses are over $800 million,” Barrow said. “While that number is bad enough, we need to understand that in a one-industry town — like a rural community where that industry is agriculture — the hit that farmers take ripples throughout the local economy…In Georgia, the total economic output impact of production losses is over $965 million. By some estimates (those losses) are as much as $1.5 billion.”

Congressman Mike Ross, a Democrat from south-central Arkansas, visited 34 towns in his district in August. He heard plenty of sad stories and desperate situations from farmers.

“There are three things farm families can’t control: crop prices, fuel prices and the weather. That’s why the next farm bill should include a title for disaster payments. It’s wrong to keep farmers and bankers guessing as to whether there will be a bill to help with disaster assistance, and when it will come.

“A lot of us thought the Republican leadership was going to give help to farmers before they cut us loose last Christmas. Here it is the next September, and farm families are still waiting for help…Unfortunately, the Republican leadership in this Congress has decided it isn’t a priority…”

If the country can afford to send $8 billion a month to Iraq and $57 million per day to Afghanistan, “I know as a nation we can find a way to provide farm families with the help they need.”

During a recent visit in Dumas, Ark., Ross was presented with a three-ring binder containing well over 100 brochures advertising the sale of farms and farm equipment. Those brochures made a profound impact.

“I have that binder as a constant reminder to do all I can in Washington to try and get the Republican leadership to support disaster relief…When we get to the end of the week, if this Republican majority votes to recess the session, I’ll vote ‘no’ until they give us a vote on disaster assistance for our farmers. It’s wrong for the Republican leadership to recess and send us home to campaign when there are farm families losing everything they’ve worked a lifetime to accumulate…All we’re asking for is an up or down vote for disaster payments for farmers.”

Terming the situation a national security issue, Congressman Marion Berry, a Democrat from east Arkansas, said 50 farmers went out of business in his home county last year.

“We expect that many, or more, to fall out this year if disaster assistance isn’t done. We can’t continue to lose producers. You don’t jump up and decide you’re going to increase production of food and fiber overnight.

“This is a desperate situation in many cases. These are good businesspeople, good farmers, hard-working family operations. But all of a sudden, no matter how hard they work or how closely they manage crops, they can’t survive…

“When we’ve faced situations like this in the past, we’ve always risen to the occasion. It’s very frustrating that we can’t get the Republicans to move and do something about this,” Berry said.

Frustration with Republicans was a common theme throughout the press conference. Asked if electioneering is hurting the campaign to get disaster assistance, the House Agriculture Committee’s ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said attempts to get disaster relief began long before election season.

“I’ve said for six months that, given the position of the Bush administration and House Republican leadership, the only way I could see getting this off dead-center is if it became enough of a political problem for the Republicans,” said Peterson. “Unfortunately, I don’t think they’ve left us much choice but to pursue the petition…Let’s get real about what’s going on here…It’s pretty clear who’s holding this up.”

Congressman Bob Etheridge, North Carolina Democrat and co-chair of the House Rural Working Group, said he found it “amazing” that Congress finds time to address issues other than agriculture.

“This is just one of many attempts by House Democrats to provide for disaster relief…The Republicans talk a good game to rural America. But they sing a different tune when they get together here in Washington. It’s time they put their money where their mouth is.

“We’re five days from recess before elections. There’s no reason to wait, there’s no time to waste, and I hope Speaker Dennis Hastert schedules a vote before we go home Friday. If he doesn’t, we’ll do what we have to do to try and keep Congress in session until there’s a vote.”

Earl Pomeroy, a Democratic congressman from North Dakota, bluntly stated that Hastert has prevented the matter from coming to the floor for one reason: it would pass.

“A broad swath of Republicans and Democrats alike know the tremendous pain in farm country,” said Pomeroy. “This Congress has been a serious underperformer. My belief is it has done less than the ‘Do Nothing Congress’ that Harry Truman used to rail against.”

Agriculture disaster relief is important for two reasons, said Pomeroy.

“First, leverage of the upcoming election will help get a square deal for farmers. It’s our best opportunity to get the kind of support for agriculture that the dire situation requires.

“Second, our farmers need hope. Action taken on a disaster bill in Congress would have given assurance that help was on the way. Instead, we get inaction, leadership doing everything they can to block disaster consideration, and vague promises about something later, maybe — it’s all a slow dance to nowhere.”

Peterson lacked sympathy for the Bush administration’s opposition to agriculture relief while citing financial responsibility. “Where were such concerns for not running up budgets in the past?

“They say it has to be paid for,” said Peterson. “Well, when it came to the Iraq war, it didn’t have to be paid for. In a supplemental bill, we spent $2.3 billion on avian influenza, which the experts tell me has a slim chance of ever materializing…If bird flu is an emergency, then farmers’ current situation is clearly an emergency…

“There are ways to craft bi-partisan disaster legislation, but we can’t get the Bush administration to talk with us…I ask again: Why is bird flu an emergency and not this? I can’t understand, and haven’t got an answer from them.”

The discharge petition is “about who’s going to be with America’s farm families and who’s not — Democrat or Republican,” said Ross. “I wouldn’t want to be a politician from either party, having to go home and face farmers after stopping an up or down vote on farm disaster payments.”

The petition needs 218 signatures to force Congress to consider disaster relief for farmers. At press time, the petition had 42 signatures — all Democrats.

email: dbennett@farmpress.com