"An all-hands-on-deck response,” President says...
Speaking ahead of his first meeting in a year with the White House Rural Council, President Obama late on Tuesday afternoon unveiled new steps for drought relief, and called on Congress to pass a new five-year Farm Bill "immediately upon their return" from the August recess. Speaking to reporters allowed into the Roosevelt Room before the meeting began, the President was seated at the center of a conference table between Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, chairman of the Rural Council, and Small Business Administrator Karen Mills. (above)
"It is a historic drought, and it’s having a profound impact on farmers and ranchers all across many states," the President said.
The drought now covers more than two thirds of the US, and the President called it "devastating" as he said that his Administration is "taking every single possible step to help farmers and ranchers to fight back and recover from this disaster." That includes his authorizing the Department of Agriculture to release $30 million in drought relief.
The newly announced funding will be used "to get more water to livestock and restore land impacted by drought," the President said.
USDA will spend $16 million on technical and financial assistance for those whose crops or herds have suffered, according to the White House.
The President has also authorized Transportation Department assistance to get more trucks with supplies on the road for ranchers and farmers, and low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration. The National Credit Union Administration is allowing an additional thousand credit unions to increase lending to small businesses.
“This has been an all-hands-on-deck response,” President Obama said. “But obviously we have a lot more to do. My instructions to all agencies is to do all that we can do.”
The President ticked off his Administration's drought relief efforts, which have included designating more than 1,500 counties across 32 states as disaster areas, in order to give farmers access to low-interest emergency loans. That's more than 50% of counties in the nation, according to USDA. Conservation land has been opened up for haying and grazing, and USDA has worked with insurance companies to give farmers a short grace period on unpaid insurance premiums.
"Some families will be struggling to make ends meet at the end of this crop year," the President said.
The current Farm Bill expires on September 30, and the passage of new legislation has been mired in battles among lawmakers. The President said passing a new Farm Bill as soon as possible is “the single best way to help rural communities both in the short term and in the long term.”
"Now is the time for us to come together and go ahead and get this done," President Obama said.
"And my hope is that Congress, many of whom will be traveling back to their districts, in some cases in rural communities, and see what’s taking place there, will feel a greater sense of urgency and be prepared to get this done immediately upon their return."
The politics of drought...
The potentially devastating financial impact of the drought is a hot topic for the President's re-election effort; "Rural Americans for Obama" is a targeted voting bloc. The President will spend three days traveling through Iowa, the heart of the corn belt, beginning next Monday. The US corn crop has been severely impacted by the drought, with 50% of the harvest rated as "poor to very poor" by USDA for the week ending August 4th. The official White House photo of the Council meeting, above, was rapidly posted as the Photo of the Day on the White House website.
In a drought fact sheet released ahead of the Council meeting, the White House noted that "As the drought continues, the Administration will actively implement its longer-term strategy for assessing and managing the effects of the crisis."
"In addition to impacts on farming and ranching operations, a long-term, widespread drought will also have implications for wildfires, water availability, navigation, and power generation across much of the country and across other sectors. As we move forward, the Administration will work closely with state and local governments, farming and ranching communities and others to ensure an effective and efficient response and recovery."
Members of the Rural Council are staff who work on the White House Domestic Policy Council, including Rural Affairs Senior Policy Advisor Doug McKalip, as well as representatives from agencies across the federal government. But a complete, up-to-date list of all members has not been released for 2012.
President Obama's last meeting with the White House Rural Council was during his three-day economic bus tour through rural America last year, and was in Peosta, Iowa, on August 16, 2011.
"President Obama convened a rural economic forum in Iowa, where he and other members of the Rural Council met with farmers, small business owners, and other community members," said White House spokesman Shin Inouye. "The Rural Council meets regularly and has taken a variety of steps to create jobs and spur growth in rural communities."
The President last met with the Secretary for a drought briefing on July 18th. Sans the President, Vilsack hosted a drought meeting on the White House campus for Rural Council members and stakeholders on July 27th.
*The transcript of the President's remarks.
*The White House Drought Response Fact Sheet
CLICK HERE for the latest on USDA's drought response, and CLICK HERE for the latest update on conditions.
*Photos by Pete Souza/White House