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Column: Blizzard Delivers a Lesson in South Dakota

South Dakota’s Republican representative Kristi Noem has a problem.

In early October, a blizzard roared through the Black Hills of western South Dakota, burying tens of thousands of cattle under several feet of snow and leaving South Dakota’s $7 billion cattle industry reeling.

The storm, nicknamed Atlas, began with heavy rain that soaked the livestock before the rain turned into a snowy blizzard with hurricane-force gusts that dumped up to 5 feet of snow on the cattle, freezing them to death as their hooves became stuck in the mud, keeping them from returning to their ranch homes. Atlas was particularly devastating because it arrived before the cattle had grown their winter coats and before ranchers had herded them to low-lying, tree-lined pastures that provide shelter from the harsh South Dakota winter.

Normally, cattle ranchers would go to the local office of the USDA Farm Service Agency to file claims for their losses. They generally have 30 days to apply.

But those farm offices were closed because of the government shutdown. When offices are closed, claims can’t be filed. And if claims can’t be filed, assistance can’t be paid.

But, closed farm offices and dead cows aren’t Noem’s only problem; in fact, they’re not even her biggest problem.

Her biggest problem may be convincing her fellow Republicans that support for South Dakota ranchers is an exception to the rule that the federal government is spending too much of the American taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

A week ago, Noem went to the floor of the House of Representative to recount a story she heard from a South Dakota rancher: “He found what he called the trail of death, about 200 of his 600 cows were dead leading up to and throughout a draw.” Noem insists that the federal government help these ranchers due to the “unprecedented” nature of the blizzard that blew through her state.

Unfortunately, Noem’s request for additional federal spending comes at a time when Congress hasn’t approved any federal spending at all. That’s why much of the federal government is largely closed for business.

In many ways, Noem has brought this problem upon herself. She’s part of the group of House Republicans who in September refused to fund the federal government unless the Democrats agreed either to defund or to delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Without that agreement, the federal government essentially shut down on Oct. 1.

Days later, the blizzard hit South Dakota.

Now, Noem would like the federal government to increase its spending.

Noem said that due to the millions of dollars of losses they’ve suffered, counties and the South Dakota governor are expected to “petition the president for disaster status” so they can receive Federal Emergency Management Agency funds. As the blizzard roared through South Dakota, Noem said that “there may be disagreement over certain parts of the federal budget, but not on FEMA.”

(South Dakota is especially reliant on federal funding since it doesn’t have a personal or a corporate income tax and a sales tax that, at 4 percent, is the second-lowest rate among the states that tax sales.)

Noem doesn’t just want temporary federal assistance. She’d also like a permanent increase in assistance by expanding the livestock indemnity program in the farm bill.

Many ranchers rely on subsidized federal insurance to cover their losses. For example, one South Dakota farmer reports losing 96 percent of his herd of 100 cattle at a cost of $250,000. He wasn’t insured against this loss, he says, because storm insurance is too expensive, according to a report in USA Today. (Many of the 50 million Americans who aren’t insured today because health insurance is too expensive would obtain subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act.)

While it’s too early to know the full extent of the losses to South Dakota’s ranchers, early figures from the head of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association suggest that 5 percent of the area’s 1.5 million cattle have been killed.

Calves sell for around $1,000 a head and cows sell for more than $1,500. (It’s difficult to get current prices due to the shutdown.)

Losses could amount to upward of $100 million. If cattle deaths rise to the 15 percent to 20 percent of entire herds estimated by the head of the National Farms Union, as reported in the Bismarck Tribune, losses could exceed $400 million. The estimates are likely to rise as the melting snow reveals more and more cattle carcasses.

Noem is on the agriculture committee and voted in favor of the House’s version of the farm bill that cuts $39 billion in funding from the food stamps program over 10 years. Some 2.8 million low-income people would lose benefits with this measure. The Senate has refused to go along with these cuts.

Noem is positioned to help craft a new farm bill. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, named her to the conference committee that will work on crafting a farm bill to replace the one that expired last month.

Estimates of the cost of the expanded assistance for ranchers that Noem has sponsored aren’t available.

While South Dakota’s ranchers are facing a terrible disaster, they aren’t the only ones to suffer from weather-related damage. Natural disasters hit the United States all the time, whether it’s hurricanes in the Gulf states, widespread droughts in the Midwest, tornadoes in the panhandle states, or “super” storms such as Sandy that ravaged the East coast a year ago.

That’s why the federal government provides emergency assistance through the FEMA and ongoing assistance through programs like those in the farm bill.

Noem voted against federal assistance for victims of super storm Sandy in New York and New Jersey.

Nevertheless, she’s at the front of the line asking the federal government for money to help victims of South Dakota’s early-October blizzard.

It appears that Noem is against federal spending until she’s for it.

And, that’s her biggest problem. It’s hard to justify spending when your own constituents are hurting when you oppose it when others’ are hurting.

Now that Noem appears to see the benefits of federal spending for ranchers when they are suffering, perhaps she’ll change her vote on the farm bill and allow federal spending for the safety net that provides needed food assistance to millions of low-income Americans when they’re suffering.

Joann Weiner teaches economics at George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department.