“The great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies,” declared William Jennings Bryan in the essential passage of his “Cross of Gold” speech to the Democratic National Convention. “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
Once upon a time, political leaders cared about farmers and rural America. Even if they debated with regard to the best approaches and policies, neither Democrats nor Republicans would dare neglect the voters who lived beyond the edges of the great cities and their suburbs.
Now, however, presidential candidates and parties can finish conventions with scant mention of rural America. And the US House of Representatives can bumble through an election year without enacting a farm bill until the last possible moment.
The point here is not to suggest that any farm bill that might be considered by the House in coming days will be an ideal vehicle for farm and food policy. It won’t be that. Guaranteed. Nor, for that matter, is the version of the measure—the Agriculture, Food and Jobs Act of 2012—that in June passed the Senate with the support of progressives such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin as well as some responsible Republicans. The National Farmers Union, the National Family Farm Coalition and other progressive farm and rural organizations can point to plenty of areas where federal farm and food legislation can and should be improved.
But after a devastating summer of droughts saw more than half of US counties—1,584 counties in thirty-two states, as of early August—designated as disaster areas, the need of working farmers for the support and certainty that is provided by a comprehensive farm bill has rarely been more pressing. At the same time, with unemployment and under-employment still high in much of the country, the need not just to maintain but to strengthen the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps)—historically a major component of federal farm bills—is real and profound.
Unfortunately, Wisconsin Congressman (and newly minted vice presidential candidate) Paul Ryan and other House Republican leaders have for months delayed action on the farm bill, refusing to bring the Senate legislation up for a House vote, trying to score cheap-shot debating points with regard to food stamp funding and by all appearances exploiting differences over the measure for fundraising purposes. Legislation that could have been approved by the House in June languishes in September.
Now, farm activists are calling the question.
The National Farmers Union, the National Farmers Organization and more than eight other farm, food, rural development, environmental, conservation and anti-hunger organizations have formed the “Farm Bill Now” coalition. The groups will rally Wednesday in Washington to argue for enactment of a new comprehensive, five-year farm bill before current programs begin to expire on September 30.
Stressing the urgency of action, the coalition says: “Calling the farm bill the ‘farm bill’ suggests its impact is limited only to farms and to the rural areas to which they are so closely tied. It’s really a jobs bill. A food bill. A conservation bill. A research bill. An energy bill. A trade bill. In other words, it’s a bill that affects every American.”
Many members of Congress agree. As Congressman Tim Walz, D-Minnesota, says: “Whether it comes in the form of steady, dependable prices at the grocery store or relief for drought stricken farmers, the Farm Bill affects and gives certainty to everyone. Congress needs to get its chores done. We need a five-year Farm Bill now. Rural America—and the rest of the country—can’t wait.”
Walz is right.
The farm bill fight that will play out in coming days is a big deal, not merely from a policy standpoint but also from a political standpoint.
Presidential battleground states such as Iowa, Colorado, Ohio and Wisconsin have vast rural regions and long histories of voting with an eye toward farm, food and small-town issues. One of the keys to Barack Obama’s win in the 2008 presidential race was the significant increase in support—up 11 percent—that the Democratic ticket won from rural regions. In eight of the ten states that shifted from backing Republican George Bush in 2004 to Democrat Obama in 2008, rural voters moved to the Democrats at even higher rates.
In 2010, rural regions swung hard to the right, providing big gains for the Republicans. Two-thirds of all US House gains by the GOP came in the country’s 125 most rural districts.
So rural issues matter, a lot, in 2012. Control of the Senate will be determined by contests in states such as Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin. To retake the House, Democrats must win back a substantial number of the thirty-nine rural districts that shifted to Republicans in 2010. And the road to the White House runs through rural America, as Obama noted when he decided to spend three days in August campaigning in Iowa—a state Ryan has visited several times since being tapped as the Republican nominee for vice president.
Though Democrats have been slow to recognize or address it, Ryan is the weak link on the Republican ticket when it comes rural America. Not only is the House Budget Committee chairman part of the Republican leadership cabal that has delayed action on the Farm Bill, he is, as well, the author of budget plans that the National Farmers Union warns would slash federal aid for farmers and rural development.
Ryan’s budgets propose cuts in support for nutrition programs and aid to rural America in order to fund tax breaks or billionaires in New York and Los Angeles—not to mention Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.
That’s a calculus William Jennings Bryan decried a century ago when he announced: “Plutocracy is abhorrent to a republic; it is more despotic than monarchy, more heartless than aristocracy, more selfish than bureaucracy. It preys upon the nation in time of peace and conspires against it in the hour of its calamity. Conscienceless, compassionless and devoid of wisdom, it enervates its votaries while it impoverishes its victims. It is already sapping the strength of the nation, vulgarizing social life and making a mockery of morals. The time is ripe for the overthrow of this giant wrong. In the name of the counting-rooms which it has denied; in the name of business honor which it has polluted; in the name of the home which it has despoiled; in the name of religion which it has disgraced; in the name of the people whom it has oppressed, let us make our appeal to the awakened conscience of the nation.”
Contemporary Democrats have a weak track record of channeling the economic populism of their party’s past, and this failure has cost them dearly in the electoral competitions of recent decades. But if ever there was a time to go all William Jennings Bryan on a Republican ticket, it would have to be when a pair of millionaires runs on a plan to redistribute the wealth upward from rural America to Wall Street. And when one member of that ticket, Paul Ryan, has been a central player in the cabal that has for months stalled action on legislation that is essential for the future of rural America.