Farm state lawmakers say the U.S. Department of Agriculture is mishandling last year's emergency drought relief and ignoring this year's arid, potentially disastrous conditions on the High Plains.

Rep. Bill Sarpalius, a Texas Democrat and member of House Agriculture subcommittee on wheat, soybeans and feed grains, said the Texas Panhandle is extremely dry, yet he can't find out "from anybody" what "we can do to help our farmers."At a hearing Thursday, an angry Rep. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the central part of the country is "blowing away ... and I can't get any damn answers," because of the Bush administration's slow pace in filling key policy jobs at USDA.

"People are crawling out of train wrecks faster ... than they're getting people on board," Roberts said during a subcommittee hearing on USDA's handling of the $3.9 billion drought bill.

Milton Hertz, administrator of USDA's Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, countered that farmers receiving drought benefits do not face undue paperwork. He also said he doesn't believe the agency has suffered during the transition to the Bush administration.

As of Feb. 28, more than 558,000 producers have received disaster payments and emergency feed assistance amounting to more than $2.7 billion, Hertz testified.

The amount paid to date represents 70 percent of what the agency anticipates will go to farmers stricken by the devastating drought of 1988, he said.

Hertz said he was not aware of efforts at USDA to draft 1989 drought relief, although subcommittee chairman Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kan., said it's "no secret the central part of America is blowing away right now."

Sarpalius said he supports another drought-relief bill this year, because Texas Panhandle wheat crops are "burned up" and decimated by insects. Livestock also has suffered.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Kika de la Garza, D-Texas, said drought conditions extend from North Dakota to South Texas.