Disaster Aid Remains Unsettled

Congress Keeps Government Operating, But Senate Fails to Pass Disaster Bill

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent
Congress closed out 2017 with another funding measure to keep the government operating temporarily, but a disaster package stemming from hurricanes failed to get a vote in the Senate. (DTN file photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C., (DTN) -- Congress closed out the year by temporarily funding the government for another month but failing to complete a robust disaster-aid package.

The House and Senate on Thursday passed a continuing resolution funding the government through Jan. 19, but the Senate did not take up the $81 billion disaster bill that would provide assistance to people affected by hurricanes and wildfires, and aid to cotton and dairy producers.

The Senate vote to keep the government funding was 66 to 32.

Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he voted for the bill because "a government shutdown helps no one."

Earlier the House had passed the bill by a vote of 231-188.

The votes clear the way for President Donald Trump to sign the bill before the current continuing resolution (CR) expires at midnight Friday.

The CR includes a provision exempting the tax bill passed earlier this week for statutory Pay-As-You-Go rules that would have required cuts to farm program spending in 2018. That means Trump can also sign the tax bill as early as Friday rather than wait until January.

The disaster bill, however, has funding language in it for cotton and dairy producers that, once passed, will also build a baseline for those provisions in the upcoming farm bill debate.

The House voted 251-169 to pass the disaster bill that also declared seed cotton to be eligible for farm subsidies; repealed a limitation on crop insurance for livestock; and set up a National Accuracy Clearinghouse that was expected to lead to a cut in spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

But the Senate decided to wait until January to deal with disaster aid.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said, "This continuing resolution is necessary to ensure continued funding for our national defense and other important priorities. I hope senators will support its passage."

"This legislation includes provisions with strong bipartisan support in the Senate and House," Cochran said. "It will extend important health care programs for veterans and children, strengthen U.S. missile defenses, and preserve the tools used by the intelligence community to keep our country safe.

"It is imperative that the Congress use the next few weeks to reach an agreement on spending levels in order to finalize FY2018 appropriations. This new continuing resolution is a necessity, but it is the bare minimum. Congress must act promptly to provide adequate full-year funding for the Defense Department and other agencies."

Cochran sounded less enthusiastic about the disaster bill.

"In addition to the CR, legislation was also approved to provide emergency supplemental appropriations to support response and recovery from recent hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters," he said. "I will continue to work in the Senate to ensure that supplemental funding is provided to help communities recover."

The disaster bill was criticized in various ways. Democrats maintained the bill did not do enough to help Puerto Rico, which continues to struggle with recovery three months after Hurricane Maria. Democrats also wanted debates about young undocumented immigrants and eventually agreed to approve the Continuing Resolution, but not support a disaster package.

The disaster bill also came under scathing criticism from conservative groups such as Heritage Action, an arm of the Heritage Foundation, which said the bill had too many spending provisions, including "an unacceptable expansion of already excessive handouts to the cotton industry." The group urged Congress to vote against the bill. The bill would require 60 votes to pass the Senate.

But House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, praised the House passage of the disaster bill and urged senators to support it.

"The 2017 hurricane season was the most costly and damaging on record," Conaway said in a news release.

"The lasting impacts of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria may have disappeared from daily news coverage, but they continue to weigh on millions of Americans, including our nation's farm and ranch families who were already struggling under hard economic times."

"While we've made significant strides in developing a strong crop insurance system and standing disaster programs to aid farmers and ranchers when Mother Nature strikes, multiple, back-to-back, devastating disasters require us to address current backlogs in critical emergency recovery programs, improve standing disaster programs, and target assistance to address holes in the safety net, including for our nation's citrus, cotton, livestock, dairy, fruit and vegetable, and other impacted producers," Conaway said.

"I applaud the House for its support of this package and call on my colleagues in the Senate to act without further delay in helping our struggling neighbors rebuild their lives and communities," Conaway said.

National Milk Producers Federation President Jim Mulhern applauded the House for including dairy provision, which he credited to Conaway and House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn. Mulhern said the provision would "eliminate the existing $20 million annual cap on the Livestock Gross Margin (LGM) program, enabling the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer coverage to more farmers in the current LGM program and provide new risk management options for dairy producers."

But Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has said the dairy provision is too small, and Mulhern said the dairy producers support the efforts of Stabenow and Leahy "to include MPP improvements in the final supplemental spending bill."

DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton contributed to this report.

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jhagstrom@njdc.com

Follow Jerry Hagstrom on Twitter @hagstromreport


Jerry Hagstrom