Washington — The Senate Agriculture Committee didn't agree on a farm aid bill after discussions last week, leaving the business unfinished as the panel prepares to take August off.
That means that a $2.9 billion aid package proposed by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., will remain one of several possible disaster-relief bills floating around Washington this month while lawmakers work in their home areas. Though committee members all agreed aid is necessary, they differ on what aid is best for farmers and how much aid can make it through a Congress still skeptical about the size of the $180 billion, 10-year farm bill passed in the spring.
"We should not vary from the practice of providing emergency assistance when natural forces beyond the control of producers wreak havoc on farmers' and ranchers' incomes," said Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
Spreading drought is destroying crops across the central United States, and some areas of the Great Plains are experiencing conditions not seen since the Dust Bowl. Kansas' winter wheat crop is expected to lose $270 million this year.
In response, farm-state lawmakers are proposing disaster-aid packages that could cost from $2 billion to $7 billion.
The aid would come in addition to the current farm bill, a bill widely derided as pork-barrel spending on ineffective programs. But that bill is looking slightly less expensive now. That's because drought pushes crop prices higher and eases subsidy payments.
One bill introduced by Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and two other House members exploits this by reimbursing farmers and ranchers for crop losses with money taken from farm bill savings.
A recent study from the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute estimates that higher crop prices will make the farm bill cost $6 billion less. Moran said that will help disaster aid gain support.
But politically, swapping crop savings for disaster payments won't be so simple. The farm bill's price tag raised eyebrows among lawmakers concerned about its $80 billion jump in farm supports from the last farm bill. One argument made for the higher price was that more aid would make disaster bills a staple of the late 1990s unnecessary.
Roberts' bill doesn't link aid to the current farm bill's cost. It does require farmers to buy crop insurance, which allows farmers to hedge against disasters, before they get any aid.
Arguing that farmers should get more money because an expensive bill wasn't as expensive as originally thought is like "selling your truck, then driving it home," Roberts said.
Crop insurance is one way to keep the cost of disaster bills down, he said.
And that's increasingly necessary to win support from lawmakers skeptical of farm aid, he said.
"Five, six billion dollars I'm not sure some of our colleagues who do not appreciate the severity of the crisis will be in a congenial mood" to pass that amount, he said.
Moran said he hoped Congress could take up disaster aid in September, shortly after it returns from its recess. Election-year politics could help a bill, as farmers are swing voters in some key election states, he said.