The White House this week unveiled its own version of a relief plan for drought-stricken farms and ranches. But the $700 million aid package pales in comparison to the nearly $6 billion plan being pushed by Senate Democrats. Both proposals are seen as election-year efforts to swing votes in close Congressional races out West.
It's long been the contention of the Bush administration that the farm bill the president signed into law back in May was generous enough to negate the need for additional spending on disaster assistance. This week, in testimony before Congress, the administration not only pushed its aid package, but defended its implementation of the new farm law.
While the ink is barely dry on the 2002 Farm Law, members of the Senate Agriculture Committee were taking issue with how USDA is implementing the new law. This week Secretary of Agriculture Anne Veneman received the full force of the committee's anger.
Senator Kent Conrad, (D) North Dakota: "Madam Secretary, you've said the lawyers disagreed, there was a disagreement among the lawyers. The lawyers don't run USDA; you run USDA. You make the decisions. You've been appointed by the president, confirmed by the congress, to make those decisions."
Members from both sides of the aisle wanted to know why it appeared the Department was ignoring specific details identified in the bill.
-Ranking member Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana wanted to know how USDA intended to handle international food-aid.
Senator Richard Lugar (R) Indiana: "I think this is very very serious. And I think we really need to change the policy."
-Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota accused Veneman and her staff of misappropriating $165-million that was earmarked for small grain farmers.
Senator Kent Conrad(D) North Dakota: "And I find that very troubling because I think you've decided to go your own way and defy what congress has said."
-And Democrat Pat Leahy of Vermont wanted to know why USDA was making the new Dairy Support Payment program so difficult to participate in.
Senator Patrick Leahy, (D) Vermont:"I believe the Department of Agriculture has taken this program, that was going to be farmer friendly, they've made it overly burdensome, overly complicated, overly restrictive, and basically telling family farmers you'd better have a couple lawyers and a couple accountants on staff to help you out.
As the meeting came to a close Secretary Veneman assured the group there would be a reevaluation of how USDA would implement the law for the 2003 crop year.
Secretary of Agriculture Anne Veneman: "We are learning things from it, and we will reconsider certain things for the '03 crop year; there's no question about it."