USDA FACES RIGOROUS QUESTIONING OVER CROP DISASTER RELIEF DELAYS
At a hearing today of the House Agriculture Committee, members led by Chairman Larry Combest (R-TX) strongly rebuked Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman for the unprecedented delays in delivering crop disaster payments authorized by Congress in October 1998.
Five months ago, the President signed into law H.R. 4328, an Omnibus Appropriations bill providing $5.9 billion in additional agriculture spending, including $2.5 billion in disaster assistance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) did not begin sign-up for this program until February 1, 1999 and soon after announced a four-week extension which will delay completion of sign-up until April 9th, almost six months after enactment of H.R. 4328.
"There is absolutely no excuse for the delays that continue to plague implementation of this program," Combest said. "Last fall, the Congress resisted micromanaging disaster assistance. We provided very broad authorities and tremendous flexibility. It was a Cabinet Secretary's dream."
"We gave the Department an absolutely free hand in putting this program together to ensure that nothing would get in the way of providing critical help to farmers and ranchers," Combest said. "Now the Secretary tells us that this freedom is contributing to the delays. It's got to be the first time I've ever heard someone complain about having too much flexibility and I guess Congress will have to re-think giving full discretion to USDA in the future."
Putting agricultural producers at further financial risk, on March 8th, Secretary Glickman notified Chairman Combest that disaster payments will not be made until sometime in June 1999. This eight-month delay is greater than those of the past six crop disaster relief programs combined and comes a full year after wheat farmers began suffering crop losses.
"This is not rocket science. This is not splitting the atom. This is something the Department has done before," Combest said. "USDA implemented disaster relief programs in 1986, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, and in 1993. Never before have farmers and ranchers had to wait so long for disaster assistance."
"I am disheartened by the delay in the delivery of this disaster assistance, but let me make perfectly clear that this is not the fault of individuals in the local offices," said Ranking Democrat Charlie Stenholm (D-TX). "Hopefully this hearing will result in positive actions that will enable the personnel in the field to deliver disaster assistance to our farmers as quickly as possible."
"When I listen to public and private statements by various individuals from the Department, all I hear are excuses. If the Department is not willing to admit they have a problem, then I have to wonder if they are willing to fix it," Combest said.
"Farmers are hurting now. Springtime planting decisions are being made now. Without disaster payments, many producers will be unable to secure necessary operating loans. Last year we had a natural disaster in farm country. This year, the disaster has been entirely man-made and it happened right down the street at the U.S. Department of Agriculture," Combest said.