Obama's energy and ag policies not selling in rural America

It is convenient for some to see the results of the 2006 and 2008 elections as a mandate for the enactment of a more extreme progressive agenda.  In actuality, many of the Democratic victories in those elections were won in moderate, rural communities – places where traditional liberal policies are not popular.  

Recent polls show that only 23% of American voters consider themselves “liberal,” and I am confident this percentage is much lower in rural America.  The same polls tell us that some 77% consider themselves either “moderate” or “conservative.”  The fact is, all members are going to be facing a tough election cycle this year – and it will be made even tougher because the policies pursued by many of them have lost the approval of most moderate voters.  

This has certainly been the case with the government’s energy and agriculture policies. They may be red meat to the liberal base but they are crippling rural America and commercial agriculture.

Cap-and-trade legislation is perhaps the most publicized example of an extreme policy attack on the agriculture industry. Commercial agriculture relies heavily on energy prices, and this legislation threatened to inflate these prices across the board. When Congress dropped cap-and-trade due to lack of popular support, the EPA stepped into the breach and announced that it would begin regulating greenhouse gasses as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. This is such a radical case of bureaucratic overreach that Congress is now telling EPA that it has stepped outside its legal authority.  Why did EPA attempt to do what they did?  To please a more extreme non-scientific viewpoint.

This same bureaucratic overreach has abandoned science to unnecessarily pursue new regulations on atrazine. Atrazine is an invaluable herbicide that has been in common use in commercial agriculture since 1959. It is estimated that atrazine saves corn farmers $28 per acre in input costs and yield advantages – the difference between staying in business and going bankrupt for thousands of farms across the country.

There are more than 6,000 studies on file supporting atrazine's safety and effectiveness, as well as international reviews by the World Health Organization, Australia, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. The EPA recently completed a comprehensive study in 2006 and concluded that atrazine poses no risk to humans.  The review also showed that atrazine levels in water are well within the extraordinarily wide margins of safety set by the EPA.

Responding to pressure from the National Resource Defense Council, however, the agency announced last October that it would convene four new Scientific Advisory Panels (SAP) to re-investigate the herbicide.  At the SAP kick-off meeting in November, the scientific chairman remarked that the proceedings were “out of the ordinary.” I agree. And I would add that if farmers across the Midwest see their livelihoods threatened by activist regulation in the EPA, and Congress does nothing to stop it, voters in rural areas won’t be treating candidates too kindly in the coming election.

The same thing is happening on the West Coast, where policies enacted to please the extreme left in California have put the value of a fly and a smelt over the livelihoods of its own citizens and the billions of dollars generated by its agriculture sector. A similarly mis-guided policy was the closure of all USDA-regulated horse processing plants in 2007, which wrecked the market for horses and increased the number of unwanted horses to unsustainable levels. Some estimates put the number of potentially lost jobs in the next few years at 500,000. Congress could help stop the bleeding by reinstating funding for the USDA inspectors of horse processing plants.  Instead, members have proposed new legislation in H.R.503/S.727 that will further destroy the market for horses and jobs in the horse industry.  

I commend the Obama Administration and Congress for beginning to focus on creating jobs and ways to put Americans back to work.  Unfortunately the government’s current policies are job losers in rural America, pure and simple – not just for farmers, but everyone who either sells to them or buys from them. That’s pretty much everyone in America. Unless the Administration and Congress change course soon their electoral prospects may be derailed.

Former Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-Tex.) served 13 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Agriculture.  He is a Co-Founder of the Congressional Blue Dog Coalition