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White House is Challenged on Plan to Fund “Disaster Aid” for Farmers

For Immediate Release: 
Thursday, August 12, 2010

WASHINGTON, Aug. 12, --Environmental Working Group (EWG) President Ken Cook today wrote to the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) challenging the rationale for the White House's promise to fund an agriculture disaster aid package sought by embattled Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The letter, addressed to OMB's Acting Deputy Director Robert Nabors, says the White House proposal violates key principles that make for effective and equitable farm disaster aid and threatens to repeat the mistakes of "ill-conceived and poorly administered farm disaster aid programs” of the past that "trample sound policy en route to ransacking the Treasury.”

The controversial White House pledge to spend $1.5 billion to retroactively compensate farmers for even minor crop losses in 2009 -- and thereby boost the reelection prospects of the imperiled Arkansas Democrat -- will mean a six-figure windfall for hundreds of plantation-scale, highly subsidized rice and cotton farms across the South. The subsidy windfall is detailed in an Aug. 5, 2010 EWG analysis (link below).

According to press accounts, Sen. Lincoln agreed to pull her controversial, $1.5 billion farm disaster aid package from legislation intended to help small businesses after receiving assurances from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel that the USDA would provide funding for the package administratively.

Some of the questions raised in the letter are:

  • Did the White House or the USDA conduct any analysis or review of Sen. Lincoln's plan before committing to implement it through administrative means?
  • What authorities and funds will the Administration use to implement the program?
  • Why does the Administration now support a meager 5 percent crop loss threshold for triggering farm disaster aid, when the traditional threshold for ad hoc assistance has been a loss of 30 percent or more?

Progressive Farmer Magazine, meanwhile, reported today that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said of Lincoln's proposal and the White House promise:

"He told Lincoln he is 'not a big fan' of the low threshold for determining eligibility that would require a farmer to have suffered only a 5 percent loss.
"Peterson said that under Lincoln's proposal, USDA would be 'making payments to some producers who do not need it and we will get all sorts of criticism over it, especially when people realize producers in over half of the counties in the United States will qualify to get a supplemental direct payment."

"As for the way the Obama administration will implement the provision, Peterson said, 'I guess you can do about anything you want via the Commodity Credit Corporation' charter. His fear, he says, is that the $1.5 billion for the program would be charged to the farm program 'account' when the next farm bill is written.”

The promise to fund the disaster aid package has unfolded as appropriations to fund settlement payments for long-standing discrimination cases brought against USDA by black and Native American farmers remain in limbo. The National Black Farmers Association issued a news release on August 11 critical of the White House deal struck with Sen. Lincoln.

Letter to OMB from EWG President Ken Cook:

Progressive Farmer story (subscription required)

National Black Farmers Association news release:

EWG report on the windfall for large farms under Lincoln's proposal:

EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.

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