Folks in rural America have been hit hard by two very different kinds of slow-moving disasters over the last two years.
The first is a two-year national natural disaster. During the last two years, over 50 percent of our country has struggled with the worst drought in five decades. Scorching heat and little or no rainfall have dried up our farm ponds, reservoirs and rivers. Many of our pastures never greened up this year. Cow herds have been reduced or completely liquidated. Many of our dryland crops were not worth harvesting or even grazing. Our farm and ranch families, and the rural communities tied to them, are in a world of financial hurt. The estimated cost of the 2001-2002 drought is over $6 billion.
The other slow-moving disaster devastating rural America this year was the failure of the president and House of Representatives to respond to this national natural disaster. Speaker Hastert and President Bush got what they wanted. The House of Representatives went home to campaign without addressing emergency disaster assistance for farmers and ranchers.
Both disasters have been unfolding for months and years, and both consist of things not happening. One disaster is a lack of rain; the other disaster is a lack of leadership.
Our American response to natural disasters has always been to pitch in and lend a helping hand in times of need, as any good neighbor should. When hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, avalanches or forest fires strike, our federal government dips into our national treasury with off-budget assistance. We help out in times of need because it is the right thing to do.
When President Bush went to Arizona early this summer to speak to the folks who were at risk of losing their homes to the forest fires, he reassured them that we were all in this together. Later, in August, President Bush came to South Dakota to stump for Rep. John Thune, his handpicked candidate in the key Senate contest against Sen. Tim Johnson. Bush did not tell farmers and ranchers gathered at Mount Rushmore who are facing the loss of their farms and ranches that we’re all in this together. Instead, he told them to rely on their own pioneer spirit.
A rancher called my office immediately after the president’s words of advice. He knew that even though the president had bought a ranch in Texas, he was only a pretend rancher. But, he had hoped that even a pretend rancher might be able to make the connection between emergency disaster assistance and the ability of real ranchers to purchase real hay to feed their real cows. He pointed out that his real cows had been living all summer on pioneer spirit, and unless real hay showed up real soon, they were tragically going to get shipped to town for slaughter.
Whether Congress passes emergency disaster assistance or not will decide whether thousands of family farmers and ranchers will be forced out of business or not. In September, the Senate attached emergency disaster assistance to the Interior Department Appropriations Bill on a 79 to 16 vote. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and President Bush continue to oppose similar authority.
In our time of need, we find out who our real friends are, and are not. That red area of our 2000 national political map that runs from Texas to North Dakota that voted for George W. Bush for president has turned brown this summer. Those voters should be wondering why their president and the House of Representatives’ leadership has abandoned them in their time of need. The simple answer is that Sen. Tom Daschle has been our real friend. President Bush and Speaker Hastert have not. Just as deeds speak louder than words, deeds undone also speak louder than campaign rhetoric.
John K. Hansen is president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. For more information visit http://members.aol.com/nefu/public/nefu.htm