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Rural America “Less Relevant” Under Democrats

April 9, 2014

In March, Congressman Bruce Braley warned donors that if Democrats lose their Senate majority, they “might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.” His comments disparaged Senator Chuck Grassley, mocked farmers and ranchers, and demonstrated Democrats’ growing antipathy towards rural America’s priorities.

In late 2012, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Obama administration’s top agriculture and rural development official, said, “Rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of the country.” He suggested rural Americans must adopt a “new attitude,” stop engaging in “frustrating” conversations about contemplated regulations, and quit “trying to hang onto what we got.” It is time, he proclaimed, for Washington to have an “adult conversation” with the 46.2 million Americans, or 15 percent of the total U.S. population, who call rural America home.

Congressman Braley’s and Secretary Vilsack’s comments are themselves frustrating. Rural Americans have been fighting an onslaught of Obama administration policies that will further undermine their livelihoods and erode their way of life. They don’t need a lecture from Washington too.

Rural Americans should continue to stand up to destructive policies pursued by Democrats:

  • Farm and Livestock Data Leaks: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledged it released personal information on 80,000 farmers and ranchers to environmental groups, including Earth Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Pew Charitable Trust. The information pertained to livestock facilities in 30 states and included names and personal addresses. Eight Republican Senators cried foul followed by a bipartisan group of 24 Senators. This reckless release of personal information put our biosecurity, food safety, and individual farm and ranch families at risk.
  • 15 Definitions of “Rural”: The federal government uses 15 definitions of “rural,” including 11 at USDA alone. “These varying definitions have become a baroque example of redundancy and duplication in Washington,” according to a June 8, 2013 article in the Washington Post. “They mean extra costs for taxpayers -- and extra hassle for small-town officials -- as separate offices ask them the same question in up to 15 different ways.” While there is bipartisan support to reform the quagmire of competing definitions, one Obama administration agency -- The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- plans to create yet another one.
  • Child Labor: The Labor Department proposed forbidding children younger than 16 years of age from completing “agricultural work with animals and in pesticide handling, timber operations, manure pits and storage bins.” It also proposed barring farm workers under 16 from handling most “power-driven equipment” and from contributing to the “cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco.” The Obama administration retracted the proposal when thousands of rural Americans objected.
  • Farm Dust: The EPA contemplated stringent requirements mandating that farms and ranches control dust occurring from their operations. It abandoned further consideration of such a policy in response to widespread criticism from farmers, ranchers, and other rural businesses.
  • OSHA on Small Farms: Since the 1970s, Congress has explicitly prohibited the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from jurisdiction over small farms, according to a January 2, 2014, article in the Wall Street Journal. Undeterred, OSHA “simply claimed the authority to rewrite the definition of farming” in a 2011 memo in order to expand its jurisdiction to small farms. Based on this, OSHA fined a small Nebraska farm with only one non-family employee $132,000 -- even though it made no claim that anyone had been hurt. OSHA dropped its case and promised to reconsider its jurisdiction after Senator Mike Johanns and 42 other Senators protested.
  • “Navigable” Waters: The Clean Water Act limits federal jurisdiction to “navigable” waters of the United States. In March, the EPA proposed a rule to expand the definition of navigable waters of the United States -- and thus its own authority. Fifteen Republican Senators wrote in opposition to the rule, which Senator Pat Toomey called a “terrifying power grab.” The American Farm Bureau Federation warned the rule “poses a serious threat to farmers, ranchers, and other landowners” because it will impose a “tremendous new roadblock to ordinary land use activities.” It could provide the EPA with limitless jurisdiction to bully private landowners with endless and costly litigation that could lead to millions of dollars in penalties for actions as simple as building a pond or a ditch near a wetland or stream. The EPA is currently threatening a Wyoming welder with civil penalties that could reach more than $175,000 per day for building a stock pond on his eight-acre farm.   
  • Spotted Owl: At the end of 2012, more than 200 residents of rural Weaverville, Calif., attended a town hall meeting with Secretary Vilsack where they took issue with his comments and protested the loss of timber jobs due to the administration’s decision to expand critical-habitat areas for the Northern Spotted Owl.
  • Energy Development: The oil and natural gas industry supported 9.8 million jobs and more than eight percent of U.S. GDP in 2011. Since the recession began in late 2007, oil and gas jobs have soared by 40 percent, far outstripping the rest of the economy’s feeble employment growth. According to the World Economic Forum, nine percent of all U.S. jobs created in 2011 were in the oil and gas sector. Oil and gas job growth took place on state and private rural lands, not on federal lands where the Obama administration continues to restrict oil and gas production. 
  • Domestic Drones: The EPA is using military-style unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to conduct surveillance of America’s farms, ranches, and rural communities in search of violations of the Clean Water Act and other laws. In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security committed to spend up to $443 million to increase its fleet to 24 UAVs for use in domestic law enforcement activities. The Federal Aviation Administration expects as many as 30,000 UAVs, which will soon be capable of seeing through walls and ceilings, to fill U.S. skies by 2020. 
  • Meatless Mondays: In a July 23, 2012, interoffice newsletter, the USDA encouraged employees to participate in “Meatless Mondays” as a way to help the environment:

“The production of meat, especially beef (and dairy as well), has a large environmental impact. According to the U.N., animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases and climate change. It also wastes resources. It takes 7,000 kg of grain to make 1,000 kg of beef. In addition, beef production requires a lot of water, fertilizer, fossil fuels, and pesticides. In addition there are many health concerns related to the excessive consumption of meat. While a vegetarian diet could have a beneficial impact on a person’s health and environment, many people are not ready to make that commitment. Because Meatless Monday involves only one day a week, it is a small change that could produce big results.”

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and federal lawmakers strenuously objected, causing the USDA to retract its discriminatory recommendation.

  • Livestock Flatulence: According to the EPA, the digestive systems of ruminant animals, such as cattle, sheep, buffalo, and goats, produce methane and other greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle alone account for 20 percent of U.S. methane emissions. Last week, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testified that “no one that I know of at this point” is talking about regulating methane emissions from flatulent cows. According to a New York Times article on March 28, 2014, the EPA, USDA, and Department of Energy will issue a “joint ‘biogas road map’ aimed at accelerating adoption of methane digesters, machines that reduce methane emissions from cattle, in order to cut dairy-sector greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.”
  • Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS): The RFS requires Americans to use an increasing amount of ethanol in gasoline. To produce enough ethanol, a growing portion of domestic corn crops must be processed and burned as ethanol, not used for food or livestock feed. This costs the typical chain restaurant up to $18,000 per year, per location; and led to livestock, poultry, and dairy producers paying $9 billion more in feed costs in 2011 compared with 2010. In November, the EPA acknowledged problems with the RFS when it proposed reducing the total amount of biofuels to be mixed into the 2014 gasoline supply. If finalized, EPA’s proposal would provide only temporary relief, not the long-term certainty farmers, ranchers, and consumers of agricultural products need.
  • Oyster Farm: At the end of 2012, the Interior Department announced it would not renew the lease of Drakes Bay Oyster Co. to operate in the Point Reyes National Seashore, eliminating a 70-year old company and 30 jobs in favor of wilderness area. NPS’s efforts to oust the oyster farm struck fear in nearby ranches and dairies that they could lose their leases next. Even Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, criticized the NPS review process as “flawed from the beginning with false and misleading science.” 
  • School Lunch: At the beginning of 2012, a North Carolina preschooler’s home-packed lunch consisting of a turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice was deemed not to meet USDA guidelines. Authorities fed her chicken nuggets, then billed her parents for the cafeteria food.
  • School Snacks: Last year, USDA finalized a rule prohibiting U.S. schools from selling certain snacks. It replaces traditional potato chips with baked potato chips, candy bars with granola bars, and regular soda with diet soda. It imposes strict rules governing which snacks are allowed, what range of calorie and nutrition requirements must be met, and what portion sizes are allowed for different age groups. High schools can sell carbonated drinks, but only if they contain five calories or less per eight fluid ounces per serving. 
  • Stimulus Waste: USDA’s Inspector General found that a stimulus program designed to create jobs by funding rural utility projects created only about 12 percent of the jobs initially projected. Of 3,384 jobs expected, only 415 materialized from the $47 million in stimulus funding.
  • King Cove: For more than 15 years, Alaska’s congressional delegation has fought for the authority to build a one-lane gravel road from King Cove, an isolated southwestern Alaska village, to a neighboring community with an all-weather airport. The road would provide a vital lifeline for King Cove’s 965 largely native Alaskan residents to emergency medical care. The Coast Guard has completed five medevacs from King Cove this year alone -- at an estimated cost to taxpayers of as much as $210,000 each. Senator Lisa Murkowski continues to press the Obama administration to approve the road. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell continues to reject it.
  • Permitting Uncertainty: The Army Corps of Engineers issued a Clean Water Act permit for a coal mining project in West Virginia. Four years later, in 2011, the EPA retroactively vetoed it. Now, the EPA threatens to preemptively veto a Clean Water Act permit for a copper and gold mining project in Alaska -- before mine developers even submit a permit application to the Army Corps of Engineers. By retroactively and preemptively vetoing permits, the Obama administration creates confusion and uncertainty for mining companies, discourages investment in mining projects, and blocks much needed economic opportunities for rural areas. Federal courts may agree that EPA legally has this power, but that does not mean EPA should use it.