Different disasters, different responses
By Seymour Klierly
As the Midwest continues to suffer from a multi-year drought, the Northeast is still assessing the damage brought on by Hurricane Sandy. With less than a month left in the lame-duck session, addressing both disasters are on the to-do list for Congress. Although the disasters were caused by entirely different meteorological phenomena, Congress holds the keys and purse for helping the affected areas recover.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is reporting that U.S. farm income will drop by 3 percent this year as a result of crop losses and increased costs due to the drought. Although the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the administration have all worked to assist farmers and ranchers, a disaster package or assistance in the form of the farm bill has not been agreed to or signed into law. For commodity growers, the silver lining is the crop insurance program. So far this year, crop insurers have paid over $6 billion on losses with the number expected to continue to rise. In Washington, there have been no major proposals for an ad hoc disaster program for farmers, essentially due to the protection of crop insurance.
Unfortunately, livestock producers do not have similar protection as a crop insurance program. In 2011, the Livestock Forage Program, Livestock Indemnity Program, and several other livestock programs were allowed to expire as called for by the 2008 farm bill. To assist livestock producers the Senate-passed version of the farm bill reauthorizes these programs and includes a retroactive extension for losses in 2012. The House version of the farm bill includes similar provisions; however, the lower chamber passed a separate livestock disaster package to immediately extend those programs. Due to D.C. gridlock, both the farm bill and the livestock disaster package have stalled when sent to the opposite chamber.
Whether classified as a "superstorm" or a hurricane, Sandy caused billions of dollars of damage in a few mere hours. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a disaster relief fund to respond in cases just like this; however, when the storm hit, FEMA only had around $8 billion in the fund. With estimated damages over $70 billion, Congress is already mulling additional funds. Just four days after the storm, Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-PA, introduced a $12 billion emergency disaster relief bill.
The White House is expected to request additional federal assistance in the next few days. For comparison, after Hurricane Katrina Congress approved $62.3 billion in disaster appropriations and $29 billion after Hurricanes Rita and Wilma hit the Gulf Coast. While these supplemental appropriations for disasters receive bipartisan support, with this Congress and such a large spotlight on the fiscal cliff and overall spending levels, passing such a measure could be less than routine.
These disasters may have come in different forms and the assistance required may be equally different, but if Congress is able to come together this December and pass assistance for both the drought and Sandy, it will go a long way in improving the image of a wholly dysfunctional Washington.
Editor's note: Seymour Klierly writes Washington Whispers for the Journal from inside the Beltway.