Rural Democrats deserve a better farm bill

Rural Democrats deserve a better farm bill
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In January, Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosDCCC is out of step with Democratic values Climate report makes agri-business a target Farmers have to be part of climate solutions MORE of Illinois delivered a report to her fellow House Democrats entitled, "Hope from the Heartland." It was a plea to her colleagues to pay more attention to disaffected voters in rural America. She is the chairwoman of Heartland Engagement for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

We know that the report, which she did on her own volition, was not well received in many Democratic quarters. That's a shame. She is exactly right to invite attention to Democrats' election failures in the heartland.


Our analysis shows that had the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate carried the same rural precincts in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin that her predecessor did in 2008 and 2012, the Democratic Party would still hold the White House. This is not an original finding, as many others have come to the same conclusion.


Nor is it breaking news that many of those voters still feel abandoned by the Democratic Party, and will not be coming back to the fold unless and until Democrats show they have something to offer rural America. We hear this repeatedly.

Which is where the Bustos report falls short. It is blunt about what policies Democrats should not run on, but offers little in the way of initiatives that would be well received where rural votes are critical. For example, economic concerns and the need for well-paying jobs are two issues that reverberate throughout the report. Yet there are no specific ideas put forward to address these issues. Rather, the report tells scattered stories of Democrats who have survived re-election. Essentially, it contains anecdotes with nothing unifying them into a vision of what the Democratic Party stands for in America's heartland.

The Bustos report needs a Part II, to lay out a positive vision of what the Democratic Party will work to achieve in rural America if returned to power. Voters ultimately want to know what candidates stand for, not how they smooth over perceived differences or how much they can belittle others, however justified.

There is no better way to present a vision for rural America than through the 2018 farm bill. This legislation touches every American, but is especially important to those in farms and cities all across the heartland. 

Our group, Democrats for a Better Farm Bill, proposes several initiatives. Among them: a big jump in jobs, resulting from expansion of local and regional healthy food networks (giving the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis "Harvesting Opportunity "credit for showing how to do it) and treating our disappearing topsoil as the infrastructure issue that it is. Other initiatives include addressing rural obesity, diabetes, and opioid crises by deploying the existing Extension Service network against these scourges, as well as modernizing crop insurance to reach more crops while better conserving the land. We’re also calling for economizing within the farm bill for higher priorities, especially agriculture research on looming nutrition threats and promising carbon sequestration measures and expanding much needed broadband.

These are urgently needed and non-polarizing proposals. They resonate. But the question is, are Democrats on the Hill interested? How about the Democratic National Committee? Our experience suggests the answer is no. There are several agriculture bills of note, all commendable, but there is no desire, let alone plan, to develop an overall strategy to shape measures like these into a policy package that Democrats could run on with success in rural America.

There is no demonstrated understanding among elected Democrats that heartland voters are eager to hear such a message. It's as if Democrats are determined to show that they can win without rural America.

Our recommendation: thank Bustos for her report, recognize its limitations, and get on with the job of working to gain the votes of those in the heartland by offering policies that they are ready to welcome, if only given the chance. The coming elections, and the outcome of the 2020 presidential race, may well depend on it.

Doug Hillmer is a mathematician recently retired from the U.S. Census Bureau. He was a plaintiff in the successful case brought against the Nixon administration for violations of the rights of Americans living abroad.  

Jon Oberg is a political scientist and lives on a prairie in Nebraska. In 2017 he prevailed in the case known as "Oberg III," in which federal courts stripped a student loan servicer of sovereign immunity, opening the way for borrower lawsuits in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.