WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of farm state senators on Wednesday called for permanent disaster aid to be part of the next farm bill, and the push appears to be gaining momentum with key lawmakers.
The lawmakers say a fixed program is needed to provide more immediate help to farmers who suffer crop losses from droughts, floods and other unpredictable weather.
"Farmers need help when they suffer disasters, it's that simple," Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said at a news conference surrounded by a half dozen of his Senate colleagues. "We should not have to wait to piggy back onto some other national disaster that gets perhaps a little bit more prominence than we get."
Congress now passes disaster aid for farmers on a case-by-case basis. Since 1998, Congress has approved 23 disaster assistance bills totaling more than $47 billion.
But National Farmers Union president Tom Buis said it's unfair to make farmers face uncertainty over whether Congress will help them from year to year. He called lack of a permanent aid plan "the most serious flaw in the safety net of American agriculture."
"We might as well plan for it, have certainty for producers and make a program that producers can get the assistance in a timely manner," Buis said.
The idea of establishing a permanent disaster fund has met resistance from Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who believes money can be spent on other programs like conservation and nutrition.
But Harkin, who did not join Wednesday's news conference, has softened his stance lately under growing pressure from lawmakers in Western and Midwestern states where farmers have been hit repeatedly by weather disasters over the last few years.
"Chairman Harkin knows there is interest in disaster assistance in this farm bill," Harkin spokeswoman Kate Cyrul said Wednesday. "While this is not the highest priority for the entire Senate, it is important to some areas of the country, so he is working to formulate an assistance package within our limited budget resources."
Both of Missouri's senators, Republican Kit Bond and Democrat Claire McCaskill, support a permanent agriculture disaster plan.
But some lawmakers are concerned that a fixed aid program could be abused.
"I have had concerns with a permanent disaster program because I worry that it could be used more like a slush fund for nonagriculture programs," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. "We should consider 'disaster' on a merit and need basis."
Roberts said he would withhold judgment until he sees how lawmakers will pay for the plan.
Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has said he will free up an extra $8 billion to $10 billion in new agriculture-related tax proposals to help pay for the permanent disaster program and other programs.