Saying the White House and OMB “held a gun to their heads,” Senate Democrats caved in and passed the House version of a $5.5 billion emergency assistance bill for farmers just before leaving for their August recess.
The Senate action should mean that farmers will receive a supplemental AMTA payment before the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30, albeit at 2001 rather than at 1999 rates as Senate Democrats and most farm organizations had hoped. (The difference is almost 2 cents per pound for cotton farmers, for example.)
Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman said President Bush would sign the House measure, paving the way for USDA to begin issuing checks sometime in the next few weeks.
Senate Democratic leaders were trying to work out a compromise proposal for a bigger Agricultural Market Transition Act or AMTA payment when time literally expired on their efforts on Aug. 3. The Republican-controlled House recessed, making it impossible to convene a conference committee on the measure.
With the growing prospects that the funding might be lost if the Senate could not complete action on a bill in time for USDA to issue the payments in this fiscal year, Democratic leaders brought the House version to the floor. It passed on a voice vote.
Later, they vented their frustration at what they saw as the White House role in blocking their version of the emergency assistance bill, which included higher AMTA payments and funds to continue several conservation programs through the end of the current farm bill.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the author of the $7.5 billion Senate version, took to the Senate floor and complained that the White House and Office of Management and Budget “held a gun to our head.”
Harkin said he had talked to Secretary Veneman, OMB Director Mitch Daniels and White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove “to see if they would at least meet with us to see if there was any room for compromise. I asked the chief of staff to request a meeting with the president to lay out our case as to why the House bill was inadequate. That meeting was denied.”
Harkin and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., had been engaging in a war of words with the White House and House Agriculture Committee leaders for most of the week, arguing that the House of Representatives' $5.5 billion assistance package would not provide the help needed.
But from the president on down, the administration maintained that any amount more than $5.5 billion would “break the budget,” as Bush said in a meeting with Republican leaders at the Capitol early in the week.
On at least two occasions, Budget Director Daniels sent letters to the Senate leadership, citing improvements in farm income in 2001 as reducing the need for emergency assistance payments.
Democratic leaders disagreed. “Last year was a 15-year low for some crop prices and only because livestock receipts are up the overall picture is looking better,” said Harkin. “Crop farmers are the ones that are hurting and yet the bean counters at OMB don't see what's happening out there.”
Harkin cited letters from most of the major farm organizations, saying that the $4.62 billion for AMTA payments in the House bill was not sufficient given the low commodity prices and higher energy costs farmers have encountered this year.
But most of those same organizations were urging the Senate to pass the House version with its lower amount as Congress approached its Aug. 3 recess date.
The National Cotton Council joined the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association in a letter to Harkin that said the Senate's efforts to respond to the severe economic crisis facing agriculture would be unsuccessful unless emergency agricultural legislation is enacted prior to the August recess.
“With the House of Representatives already in recess, the only course available to the Senate to ensure that farmers receive $5.5 billion of funds earmarked for 2001 is to pass H.R. 2213 as passed by the House,” the letter stated.
“U.S. agriculture cannot wait any longer, the Senate must act,” NCC Chairman Jim Echols said. “We hoped the Senate would pass its own version of the assistance in a timely manner, but now the only practical option for getting this much-needed aid to farmers is for the Senate to pass the House bill before the Senate recesses.”
Besides the $4.62 billion for the supplemental AMTA or market loss assistance payments, the House bill provides the following benefits:
Oilseed producers — $423.5 million to those eligible to receive 2000 crop year oilseed assistance.
Specialty crops — $159.4 million in the form of grants to the states to support activities that promote agriculture. Of that, $133.4 million will be awarded to each state based on the proportion of the value of its specialty crop production compared to a national value.
Peanuts — $54.2 million to producers who received 2000 crop year peanut payments.
Cottonseed assistance — $84.7 million paid to ginners or growers who received 2000 crop year payments.
Tobacco — $129 million paid to producers who received 2000 tobacco payments.
Wool and mohair — $16.9 million paid to producers who received 2000 marketing year wool and mohair payments.
Emergency Food Assistance Program — $10 million in grants to states to cover administrative costs related to processing, transportation and distribution of food through community food banks.