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Farm Bill Politics May Impede Passage of Livestock Disaster Bill

As powerful as the storm called Sandy proved to be, it may not be forceful enough to push a stand-alone disaster bill for the livestock industry through Congress.

A House disaster aid bill intended to cover losses livestock producers incurred during this year’s drought is pending before the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has steered clear of the legislation at the urging of Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who said in July that if her chamber acted on the measure, the House would feel less pressure to act on its farm bill.

Groups opposed to the measure, which the House passed just before leaving for the summer recess, appear firm in their objections to what they see as a piecemeal response to the worst U.S. drought since 1956. They continue to advocate for passage of a five-year farm bill that would reauthorize expired disaster programs and expand coverage.

“Let’s figure out a way to get that done. We wouldn’t be supportive of a stand-alone disaster bill,” said Jon Doggett, a lobbyist for the National Corn Growers Association.

The House’s drought relief bill would provide aid only to eligible ranchers with losses in fiscal 2012.

The Senate passed its farm bill (S 3240) in June, but the House has not voted on the House Agriculture Committee-approved bill because of differences within the Republican caucus over spending reductions for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Supporters of the drought legislation may find it difficult to hitch a ride if Congress decides there is a need for a disaster aid bill to cover areas hit hard by the recent storm’s wind and rain. Millions were left without electricity and there has been widespread structural damage, mostly from flooding, in New York and New Jersey.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it believes the $3.6 billion in its disaster fund should be enough. However, House appropriator Chaka Fattah, a Pennsylvania Democrat, plans to file legislation for $12 billion in supplemental spending for FEMA in the postelection session that starts Nov. 13. But Fattah said he will not seek budget offsets, which would make the bill a non-starter in the Republican-controlled chamber.

Early reports indicate relatively little damage to farming and livestock and poultry operations, although many New Jersey livestock producers were without the power they need to provide well water for their animals. Because it is late fall, most crops have been harvested, and hogs, poultry and dairy herds were largely kept in shelter.

In other words, Sandy may not have caused enough damage to cause farm groups to rally behind a disaster aid bill or an expansion of the House drought bill to address the storm’s damage.

Caught up in the farm bill strategies and politics, the House disaster bill does not seem to have much traction in Congress.

Agricultural Considerations

A stand-alone drought bill might have had more support if farmers who produce major commodity crops such as corn and soybeans were not already largely shielded from economic losses from the drought. But even with their support, selling even a limited aid bill might be difficult because reduced corn and soybean supplies have raised prices paid to farmers who were able to harvest crops. The Agriculture Department also forecasts record farm income for 2012.

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