Farmers' record belies 'loss of influence'
By TIM HEARDEN
Despite what U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says about their loss of influence, rural Americans managed to string together an impressive array of successes during President Barack Obama's first term.
Political pressure from farmers and ranchers played a big role in stalling key parts of Obama's agenda that they don't like, including cap and trade, stringent new meatpacker rules and the proposed removal of four dams from the Klamath River.
At the same time, producers have managed to push forward things they do like, such as estate tax rates that are more favorable to growers than when Obama took office and finalizing trade agreements that were bitterly opposed by the president's union allies.
It's true that most would be quick to agree with Vilsack that rural America doesn't have the clout it did a couple generations ago, which is why groups including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and California Farm Bureau Federation are taking steps to boost fundraising for political activities.
But that trend is not new, notes Dale Moore, the American Farm Bureau Federation's deputy director of public policy.
"We've seen this for 50 or 60 years now," said Moore, who was chief of staff for four USDA secretaries under then-President George W. Bush. "With each successive farm bill that has occurred, there's been more impact from the influence of urban and suburban members (of Congress) and non-ag interests and non-rural interests."
While Vilsack is right that rural interests have struggled this year to bring a new farm bill to fruition, the flipside is that they were crucial in getting the votes in Congress necessary to ratify the Bush-era trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, Moore said.
Indeed, aside from defeating a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal to halve the level of dust allowed at farms and other businesses and a Labor Department initiative to tighten child labor restrictions on farms, farmers and ranchers have flexed some political muscle on a variety of other issues. Among them:
* Climate change legislation that included the controversial cap-and-trade system sputtered in 2010 after the Heritage Foundation found it would have cost agriculture hundreds of millions of dollars a year in increased fuel costs and billions of dollars in farm gate revenues. In the House of Representatives, 44 Democrats joined Republicans in voting against it.
* Meatpacker-competition rules proposed two years ago by the federal Grain Inspectors, Packers and Stockyards Administration were dramatically stripped down after the USDA received more than 61,000 written comments on the plan and producers packed a workshop in Fort Collins, Colo., mostly to rail against it.
* A proposal in 2009 to change the definition of "navigable" waters in the Clean Water Act has languished in Congress. Western farm groups and lawmakers have fretted that the Clean Water Restoration Act poses serious threats to states' sovereignty and rural economies.
* Under pressure from Congress, the Obama administration last year backed away from a plan to make millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West eligible for federal wilderness protection. Farm groups had called it a "land grab."
* Resistance in Congress prevented U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar from making a feasibility determination on the Klamath dam removal project earlier this year. Congress must authorize the $1.1 billion project, which has faced vocal opposition from many local residents.
With a record of victories such as this, farm groups concerned about the impact of federal regulations aren't likely to get discouraged and go away.