Politics

Farmers feel the pain as lawmakers haggle over delayed disaster relief plan

Key Points
  • It's been nearly seven months since Hurricane Michael swept through Greg Mims' farm in southwestern Georgia and all but wiped out his cotton harvest.
  • Lawmakers typically work together to send help quickly following a natural disaster. But this time, aid for farmers has gotten tangled up inside a massive $17 billion disaster relief bill that has languished for months on Capitol Hill.
  • The House is slated to tackle the legislation again this week, but Republicans and Democrats remained deadlocked over how much aid should go to Puerto Rico.
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It's been nearly seven months since Hurricane Michael swept through Greg Mims' farm in southwestern Georgia and all but wiped out his cotton harvest.

Since then, Mims has had to rebuild the farm irrigation system. He bought new seed to spread across his fields. Eventually, he wants to fix the equipment shelters that were destroyed in the storm, along with his farm shop. But federal aid is stalled in Washington, so progress has been painfully slow.

"Agriculture is the only thing that is really going on in our little rural community," Mims said. "It would help tremendously if we could get some type of financial aid."

Lawmakers in both parties typically work together to send help quickly following a natural disaster. But this time, aid for farmers like Mims has gotten tangled up inside a massive $17 billion disaster relief bill that has languished for months on Capitol Hill. The House is slated to tackle the legislation again this week, but Republicans and Democrats remained deadlocked over how much aid should go to Puerto Rico.

Democrats are seeking more food assistance for the island, full coverage for the cost of services from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and expanded funding for Medicaid for residents. But President Donald Trump has opposed additional money for Puerto Rico, accusing officials there of mismanaging funds.

Senate Republicans offered a compromise last week that would provide $600 million in nutrition assistance along with $300 million to Puerto Rico through community development block grants. But Democrats fear that will not be enough to cover the years of rebuilding facing the island.

Dueling tweets

On Monday, Trump entered the fray on Twitter once more, arguing that Puerto Rico has received enough help from the federal government and laying the blame squarely onto Democrats.

"The Dems don't want farmers to get any help," he tweeted. "Puerto Rico should be very happy and the Dems should stop blocking much needed Disaster Relief!"

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, quickly pointed the finger back at the White House.

"The President is holding disaster aid to ALL American citizens hostage over a petty, political grudge against Puerto Rico," he tweeted back.

The fight in Washington has turned the nation's farmers into collateral damage. The disaster bill includes $3 billion in direct aid that covers not only cotton farms in Georgia, but also cattle ranches in the Midwest that suffered historic flooding, vineyards in California hurt by wildfires and sweet potato fields swamped by Hurricane Florence. The Farm Bureau, an industry group, estimates losses to the agricultural sector at $8.5 billion.

"It's a reflection of our broken politics, but also of how few things are getting done these days," said Brendan Buck, a former top advisor to House Speaker Paul Ryan. "Any legislation that matters is now a hostage to be taken. When so few bills become law, there's much greater incentive to hold out to get what you want in there."

Mims has been farming since the day he graduated high school. Cotton is the main crop grown on his 3,500-acre family farm, accounting for about 40% of his harvest. He also grows other staples like corn, soybeans and Georgia's iconic peanuts.

Praying for a "superharvest"

Now 49, his hair is white, and Mims has weathered plenty of storms. But he said he has never seen one as fierce as Hurricane Michael, the first major storm to hit Georgia in more than 125 years. Wind gusts reached 115 mph around his farm, littering the ground with cotton fibers before they could be harvested. Mims recalled his disappointment as he surveyed the barren stems the day after the storm.

"It looked like a cotton picker had been through and picked it already," he said.

Mims had harvested only about 250 of his 1,500 acres of cotton when Michael arrived. Most of what was still in the field was a total loss. Across the state, the cotton industry took an estimated $600 million hit, according to an industry group.

"The hurricane hit us at what honestly couldn't have been a worse time," said Taylor Sills, spokesman for the Georgia Cotton Commission.

Mims said the storm and the delay in aid have taken a toll on his farm's finances. This year, he is praying for a "superharvest" to make up the difference. As for Uncle Sam, he's worried the waiting game will never end.

"You get to the point where you're thinking, 'I don't think we're going to see anything out of it,'" Mims said. "It may be even past frustration and more, I guess, hopeless."