Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas normally is a charming, southern lady whose warm smile and friendly manner helps her win friends and influence enemies across a broad political spectrum.
But, the daughter of a cotton, soybean and rice farmer from Helena, Ark., didn't mince words when the Senate passed a bill providing $5 billion in emergency aid for farmers in 2001.
“I can't believe my colleagues would kick the farmer when he's down, but that is what they have done by approving this amendment,” she said. “Crop prices are still at record lows while input costs, such as fertilizer and energy prices, are skyrocketing. I don't understand how they can justify offering less assistance this year.”
“We have to address the needs of our farmers today or we will be importing our food from foreign countries tomorrow.”
The Senate voted 51-49 April 4 to add $5 billion to this year's budget for emergency economic assistance. The amendment by Sens. Grassley of Iowa, Miller of Georgia and Domenici of New Mexico also increased the budget baseline for agriculture by $58.5 billion in FY 2002-2011. The current baseline: $4 billion to $5 billion annually.
“I'm hearing from Arkansas farmers that I never thought would close their shop doors,” Lincoln said. “They've simply decided to call it quits this year. It seems that the most common event in rural Arkansas now is a farm auction.”
The junior senator from Arkansas introduced a budget amendment that would provide $9 billion for emergency funds for 2001 and up to a $12 billion per year increase in the agriculture baseline for 2002-2011. Two days later, the Senate adopted her amendment for the $9 billion for 2001, but left the baseline increase at $58.5 billion over the 10 years.
The $9 billion for 2001 and the $12 billion for 10 years were the amounts requested by farm organizations in a letter to the House and Senate budget committees. The organizations included the National Cotton Council, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, the USA Rice Federation and the U.S. Rice Producers Group.
They have been urging Congress to act quickly due to reports of lenders being reluctant to make crop loans until they saw how much emergency assistance would be available for the 2001 crop year.
Sen. Lincoln said the increased funding for the agricultural baseline would allow farmers to become less dependent on such emergency assistance in the years ahead.
“My amendment will allow the Agriculture Committee to write a multi-year and multi-title farm bill,” she said. “Those of us from rural areas have always been able to put partisanship aside to ensure the existence of family farms and rural America. I hope we will be able to continue in that effort.”
The Senate and House FY2002 budget resolutions must go to a conference committee to be reconciled. The House plan says that agriculture and defense can tap a $514 billion strategic reserve fund set aside for 2002-2011, but it does not spell out specific spending amounts. House Democrats contend a downturn in the economy could make the strategic reserve and increased funding for farm spending an empty promise.