Emergency aid bills stuck as Congress takes long break

Congress is on a “district work period”—often known as its traditional two-week hiatus for Passover and Easter. Before it left town, members continued to debate emergency supplemental support packages to aid victims of hurricanes in 2017 to Midwest floods of the past few weeks.

Among the latest is a $17.2 billion emergency supplemental bill that builds on legislation the House passed in January. It includes an additional $3 billion to address urgent needs following flooding in the Midwest and tornadoes in the South that have occurred. A previous House-passed bill has languished in the Senate.

“Senate Republicans have bent to the will of President Trump and torpedoed relief for all disasters because of the president’s bizarre vendetta against Puerto Rico,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-NY. “This legislation provides robust, comprehensive assistance that will help all Americans affected by natural disasters recover and rebuild. I urge my Republican colleagues to come to their senses and join Democrats in advancing this bill and delivering prompt relief.”

The legislation is similar to an emergency disaster appropriations bill that passed the Democratic-led House Jan. 16, prior to the Midwest floods and Southern tornadoes, and then stalled in the Senate over Republican opposition to additional assistance for Puerto Rico.

Congress has been in limbo over disaster aid for weeks due to President Donald Trump’s opposition to aid to Puerto Rico beyond $600 million for food stamps and the insistence by Democrats that Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories need several hundred million dollars in additional reconstruction money.

Bipartisan support for storm victims

All sides agree that farmers and ranchers caught by blizzards and flooding in the northern Plains and western Corn Belt this year should be part of a disaster bill originally aimed at 2017 and 2018 hurricanes, wildfires and volcanic eruptions.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, and Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-VT, April 11 introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

“The unfortunate dispute over disaster appropriations in the Senate has been whether or not to provide relief to all American citizens suffering from recent natural disasters, no matter their zip code,” Schumer and Leahy said in a joint release. “Despite what the president may think, Senate Democrats firmly believe it is the responsibility of Congress to provide that relief. This package does that. We cannot and will not pick and choose which citizens to help based on petty, political disputes.”


New funding requests

In addition to the funding provided in the original House bill, the new legislation makes three additions:

$1.5 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for repairs to Corps projects damaged by flooding and natural disasters;

$1 billion for Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery, with language ensuring it is spent quickly to help communities rebuild housing, businesses, and public infrastructure in the most impacted and distressed areas affected by major natural disasters; and

$500 million for the Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Conservation Program, providing emergency funding and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers to rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters.

Not everybody is happy with the proposed legislation. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN, said April 9 he sees the need to help farmers with losses in grain bins from Midwest floods. But he said the notion $3 billion is needed for Midwest disaster aid is “baloney.”


Southern farmers need aid

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Speaking with members of the North American Agricultural Journalists, Peterson said inserting Midwest aid into a current disaster bill in the Senate could potentially hold up needed aid for Southern farmers whose farms were hit hard by hurricanes last year.

“The Southerners need this,” Peterson said. “They have a lot of crops that don’t traditionally get into crop insurance that were damaged during a tough time in the cycle. Pecan trees and peaches and so forth that are not in the normal farm program disaster deal. So they need this $3 billion deal they have been working on for the South.”

Now, the Midwest flooding has come into play, which further complicates the bill, as DTN/The Progressive Farmer reported Peterson’s remarks.

“That’s getting tangled up with this because people are playing politics with it and making it sound like the government’s got to come in with a big disaster deal and save people,” Peterson said.

For farmers hit by the spring storms and floods, Peterson said the 2018 farm bill deals with most of their needs already.

“The truth is, for farmers, everything that was damaged was covered in the farm bill,” Peterson said. “Ninety-eight percent of those people have crop insurance. We have the Livestock Indemnity Program. We have the Livestock Forage Program. We have all of these other programs that kick in now that we didn’t used to have.”

Insurance policies often cover grain bins and associated equipment such as augers to move the grain, but not the contents. The USDA says none of its disaster programs address flood damage to stored grain. Farmers are storing larger-than-usual amounts of grain on the farm because of a series of bumper corn and soybean crops and low commodity prices exacerbated by trade war.

Farmers who lost crops in grain bins should be eligible for an indemnity payment and Congress should work to make that happen, Peterson said.

“I think we can do a one-time thing to try to help people with that,” Peterson said. “But one thing that should come in here is you could have bought insurance. So this is something that is going to come up…” Disaster bills often require growers to buy crop insurance if they are compensated for crop losses.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee April 9 farmers ought to be considered for federal compensation for grain lost in flooded bins this spring. Perdue also gave conditional support to compensation at nearly the same time the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee called for a one-time grain payment to flooded operators.

Perdue likened flooded grain bins to inundated grain fields.

“If it’d been flooded prior to harvest, would we have compensated it? Yes,” Perdue said. “Just because its in the bin, does that make it different? They haven’t marketed that. I think that’s certainly something we should consider.”

A disaster bill backed by Senate Republicans allows USDA to distribute aid money via block grants but is silent on crop insurance premiums as one of the potential uses.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].