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Congressional Rural Caucus

  • The nation's farmers and ranchers have a voice in Congress with the reorganization of the Congressional Rural Caucus.
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By Margo Turner

A bipartisan group of 114 House members in Washington, D.C., have joined forces to speak out for farmers and ranchers by forming a new Congressional Rural Caucus.

Created in the 1970s, the rural caucus languished in the late 1980s and became dormant when the Republican-controlled Congress decided five years ago that House administrative funds can no longer pay for caucus staff and activities. Members of Congress must spend their personal funds on caucus expenses and provide staff from their own offices.

Concerned with the agricultural crisis affecting all aspects of American life, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) decided early last year to revive the rural caucus. Emerson teamed up with Rep. Eva Clayton (D-N.C.), an outspoken farm advocate.

The caucus wants to "raise the noise level" on Capitol Hill about the unique challenges and opportunities faced by rural communities across the country and facilitate solutions for rural issues through the policy-making process, explained Emerson, who co-chairs the group with Clayton.

Emerson and Clayton held a press conference March 14 on Capitol Hill to officially announce the relaunching of the caucus. They were joined by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.); Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who recruited caucus members with Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.); former Rep. Glenn English (D-Okla.), now chief executive officer of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association; several other members of the rural caucus; and representatives from the National Rural Network, a coalition of farmers, rural development professionals and nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations.

Later that same day, Emerson talked about the caucus and its importance to rural communities on the House floor.

Emerson pointed out that 62 million people live in rural areas of the country and another 15 million make their home in small cities and towns. Although these 77 million Americans share many of the same problems of big city residents, she said rural communities "consistently get the short end of the stick when it comes to federal funding."

Congress must do all that it can to "ensure that rural communities have the tools they need to turn their challenges into opportunities for growth and prosperity in the 21st century," Emerson said.

Clayton, who also addressed the House, noted that farmers and ranchers are a dying breed, which puts quality and affordable food for all Americans at risk.

"Passage of the 1996 Farm Bill sounded the death knell for many of our nation's farmers and ranchers," she said. "Farmers and ranchers, able to eke out a living from the land for years, now find it almost impossible to break even."

Before the farm bill, Clayton said the farm price safety net was a shield against uncertain and fluctuating commodity prices. "When that bill was being considered, we referred to it as 'Freedom to Fail,' " she said.