Congress hangs farmers out to dry

A bad omen for future climate shock: Congress can't even pass a bill to help parched farmers

Published August 3, 2012 6:16PM (EDT)

Just how screwed up is the United States? A catastrophic drought has impelled the federal government to designate more than half the nation's counties as disaster areas. Yet even in the face of this historic disaster, Congress has proven itself incapable of passing legislation, large or small, to help the farmers affected by the drought.

The big failure is Congress' inability to pass a new farm bill. The Senate did manage to rally the votes to get a comprehensive trillion-dollar five-year bill through its chamber, but House Republicans refused to go along because the bill includes too much funding for food stamps.

Then, on Thursday, the last day before shutting down shop for August, the House passed a much more limited bill that would revive four disaster aid programs that expired last September. Much smaller in scope than the Senate's bill, the House's package includes aid to livestock owners who can no longer make a profit on their animals because the cost of feeding them has risen too high.

The Senate, however, is unlikely to take up the House's bill because it pays its $383 million price tag by gutting $650 million from two environmental conservation programs. The point is moot, anyway, because the Senate has also closed down for the rest of August. The drought will continue, but Washington can't be bothered.

The dysfunction doesn't end there. Conservative activist groups also opposed the House bill, on the grounds that farmers and livestock owners should have known better.

Seriously -- that's exactly the gist of a statement from Heritage Action, a congressional watchdog affiliated with the Heritage Foundation:

Proponents of the bill cite the drought’s impact on livestock — and the absence of livestock-specific disaster programs — as the principle reason for the aid package. However, the livestock-specific disaster programs expired in 2011, meaning ranchers knew that they had to plan for possible disasters, including drought ... Not only does this $383 million spending bill extend well beyond drought aid for livestock farmers, it continues making farmers, ranchers and orchardists more dependent on government and bails them out for not adequately preparing for hardship.

I can appreciate the hardcore libertarianism inherent in the philosophy embedded in the Heritage Action statement. No bailouts, ever! If your farm fails, so be it! You can head off to California like the Okies before you. But I don't think most Americans really want to live in that kind of country, and I think it's absurd to imagine that in the few months that passed since assistance programs ended in late 2011, farmers could have been able to appropriately prepare for one of the two or three worst droughts in a century. That is like saying there should haven been no unemployment benefits whatsoever in the depths of the Great Recession, because workers should have been prepared in advance for the possibility of a financial crisis that lays off millions of employees. There are some disasters that are too big for everyone to adequately anticipate. That's one big reason why we have government in the first place.

Heritage Action's critique of the bill also raises a larger question. While we may not have been able to predict a drought like this summer's with any immediate accuracy, the consensus opinion of climate science researchers tells us that we can expect a higher frequency of extreme weather incidents in the future. There aren't a whole lot of options for individuals who want to prepare against the disruptions brought about by a hotter climate. Meaningful action must be collective.

But a Congress that can't pass a farm bill in the middle of one of the worst droughts in memory is certainly not a Congress capable of preparing against disasters yet to happen. Whether we like or not, Heritage Action is going to get what it wants: It's every man, woman and child for him- or herself. With no lifeboats in sight.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Congress Drought Farm Bill Global Warming