Ag chief: Congress must bolster drought relief

August 3, 2012 - 4:36 PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Federal officials are using their limited options to help farmers facing widespread drought conditions, but they need Congress to pass legislation to provide better disaster relief, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Friday.

The House passed legislation Thursday to revive disaster relief programs for cattle and sheep producers affected by drought before lawmakers left for a five-week recess, but the Senate didn't act on the bill.

Vilsack is pushing for more, saying passage of a comprehensive five-year farm policy bill would have a deeper, longer-lasting effect.

The drought and the various types of aid available to farmers and ranchers were among the concerns Vilsack discussed with producers Friday while visiting the Ohio State Fair.

"The president has instructed us to do everything we can to help. Our tools are going to be used, but they're limited," Vilsack told The Associated Press by phone afterward. "We need quick passage of the farm bill by the House of Representatives."

The Senate has passed a version of the five-year bill, and a House committee approved similar legislation, but the House Republican leadership has resisted bringing it to the floor because of fears that conservative lawmakers might oppose spending levels in the bill. The head of the Senate Agricultural Committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has said informal talks would be held over the recess in an effort to produce a plan that could be offered to both chambers next month.

Democratic opponents have characterized the measure passed Thursday by the House as cover for Republicans having to explain to rural constituents why they put off action on the comprehensive farm bill, and Vilsack added his criticism.

"The House passed, at the last minute, a piece of legislation which even many members acknowledge is more about politics than policy," he said.

If the larger farm policy bill isn't passed by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, when the existing bill effectively ends, policies and programs such as disaster aid could lapse, creating more uncertainty for farmers and people in rural communities, he said.

This week, 218 counties in a dozen drought-stricken states were added to the federal government's list of natural disaster areas as Vilsack unveiled new help for frustrated, cash-strapped farmers and ranchers grappling with extreme dryness and heat. That means more than half of all U.S. counties have been designated primary disaster areas this growing season, mostly due to drought.

"There's no question that this is one of the most geographically expanded droughts we've confronted," he said. "It's affecting and impacting virtually every state of the Lower 48."