Disaster efforts likely in Senate

The effort to get a disaster assistance package through Congress might be likened to a knight with a lance charging into a wall of dragons. If it gets through, it might cost the knight.

An effort to include disaster assistance in appropriation bills in the Senate is expected. But the question is, “How much would it cost and would changes have to be made to the farm bill to accomplish it?” says the National Cotton Council's top lobbyist in Washington.

The call for disaster assistance comes on the heels of drought earlier in 2002 and monsoon-like rains at harvest that hurt yield and quality in a large part of the Southeast and Mid-South. (In North Carolina alone, the crop was off 53 percent from 2002's record level.) But the call is echoing around already-heated criticism of the farm bill from politicians representing Midwestern states and a negative national media.

Speaking at the 52nd annual meeting of the North Carolina Cotton Producers Association, John Maguire, vice president of the National Cotton Council's Washington operations, said cotton farmers are asking that disaster assistance be designated as “emergency” spending for 2001 and 2002 crop losses, cover yield and quality, and include all weather “events.” U.S. Rep. Max Burns, R-Ga., introduced a disaster bill the second week of the New Year.

The Bush administration is on record urging self-sufficiency — which translated means crop insurance, Maguire says — cost off-sets and a move to more permanent solutions.

Finding the funding for a disaster package could mean using savings from cuts in farm bill programs such as the MLG/LDP, DP, CCP, as well as elimination of certificates, Maguire says. An amendment by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., came up with $6 billion for disaster assistance for the life of the farm bill by making deep cuts in program benefits.

“Six billion dollars is difficult to generate,” Maguire says.

Meanwhile the “dragons” intent on slaying the farm bill are still on the loose — both domestically and internationally. Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., has indicated he will renew his efforts to eliminate certificates and modify the operation of the non-recourse loan program. Even though the Grassley-Dorgan payment-limitation amendment was ultimately dropped in conference, it passed 66-31 during the Senate farm bill debate, and a $2.5 million means-test was retained. Maguire points out that amendments to cut benefits can be offered over and over again. “Grassley believes that cotton and rice farmers have somehow figured out a way around” the payment limitations. “He has even suggested that the Environmental Working Group renew its efforts to encourage adoption of strict payment limitations.”

While some opponents go away after a rebuff, “Grassley has a history of not quitting,” Maguire says.

In the press, the assault also continues. A Dec. 30, 2002, editorial in the Dallas Morning News said, “to say the farm bill is excessive is like saying Michael Jackson is weird.”

One argument that will be used by some Mid-western grain and oilseed interests against the farm bill is “we would have been better off with double AMTA payments,” Maguire says. “Cotton, rice and peanuts are getting counter-cyclical payments and grains and oilseeds aren't.

“Our dragon is farm bill modifications which limit benefits, especially when the improved safety-net and marketing loan are so vital to our existence,” Maguire told the group of North Carolina cotton leaders.

But the battle also rages on the international front. Brazil is challenging the U.S. cotton program, saying Step 2 is an export subsidy. African countries have also joined the protest, saying the U.S. cotton program injures their economies.

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