Destructive politics evident across the U.S.A.
|Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU) sees political divisiveness as the reason for Congress’ inability to get things done.|
By DIETER KRIEG
HALIFAX, Pa. -- Historically, the National Farmers Union has had a tendency to lean to the left of center, politically. But when NFU President Roger Johnson was the keynote speaker here at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union on Monday, Feb. 25, he favored neither left nor right and criticized Democrats as well as Republicans. Political polarization, fueled by gerrymandering and biased news broadcasts on both the left and the right, has divided the nation, he declared. The result is that nothing gets done. “It's the worst I have ever seen it," he affirmed.
Choosing the lack of a new farm bill as a specific example, Johnson acknowledged that there's truth to the reasoning that farmers have lost considerable influence in Washington. "But the bigger reason we don’t have a new farm bill is because we have an incredibly dysfunctional Congress. They can't get anything done," he said.
Johnson, a third generation North Dakota grain and livestock farmer who served as commissioner of agriculture in his home state prior to being elected NFU president in 2009, comes across as the complete opposite of a divisive activist. He never raised his voice during the entire time that he spoke. Instead, he allowed his calm presentation of facts and figures to convey sincere feelings of concern for the country. It's not just about the future of family farmers and agriculture. It's about the future of the United States and its 300 million citizens. The stumbling block, he indicated, is the political divisiveness that’s gripping the population.
Some of it is the result of gerrymandering … political redistricting which is tweaking elections. "It has really been bad across the nation and especially bad here in Pennsylvania," he said. "My point in this is that we have a very divided country as a result. Republicans and Democrats have become so confident within their own party positions (largely because of the gerrymandering) that they (politicians) no longer worry about the voter's opinion, let alone opposition.
Wikipedia’s definition of gerrymandering reads, in part: “In the process of setting electoral districts, gerrymandering is a practice that attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries to create partisan advantaged districts. In addition to its use achieving desired electoral results for a particular party, gerrymandering may be used to help or hinder a particular demographic, such as a political, ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, or class group, such as in U.S. federal voting district boundaries that produce a majority of constituents representative of African-American or other racial minorities, known as "majority-minority districts".
Johnson continued: "And if you watch the news of what's happening, you could think that MSNBC and Fox News are reporting from two different worlds. We now have the ability to hand-pick what kind of news we want to listen to," he said, adding that he rarely bothers to turn his TV on anymore. "When I was a kid, we listened to credible newscasters like David Brinkley, Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite," he added. "They separated the news from opinion. Today the opinion-driven news broadcasts are a very real dynamic that we have to recognize."
Also harmful to progress are harsh over-reactions to legislation that may be on the table. Johnson doesn’t think it was right, for example, when House Speaker John Boehner described a segment of proposed dairy legislation as being "Soviet-style" in nature. He suggests that the inflammatory rhetoric has to stop if progress is to be made on any front.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, total projected federal spending for the next 10 years is $44.3 trillion, of which the farm bill would get an estimated 969.7 billion. That’s just over 2 percent of the federal budget.
When it comes to spending the $969.7 billion of proposed farm bill funds, Johnson pointed out that close to 80 percent of the dollars are earmarked for food assistance programs. "It's the largest ever," he declared. And it's likely to get a lot bigger because as the economy worsens and people lose their jobs or find themselves in reduced income situations, their qualification for food stamps is now automatic.
The second largest slice of the farm bill money pie ($95.9 billion) goes to crop insurance, which has sunk commodity programs to third place. And the dairy portion within the commodity "slice" has dropped to "almost nothing in the current scene," according to Johnson.
The crop insurance portion of the budget has grown in direct proportion to the value of the grain. "In the last four years, grain has exploded," Johnson said. "We now have revenue-based insurance programs, instead of programs that were based on crop yields," he explained.
Aside from delivering an overview of what's happening in Washington, Johnson had a second reason for attending the Pennsylvania Farmers Union meeting, and that was to help revitalize it. For all practical purposes, the organization has been near death for a decade or more. A handful of people have held on but it hasn't been enough to maintain legitimacy, as far as the National Farmers Union was concerned. As a result, Pennsylvania lost its charter, leaving a wake of debt and neglect.
That all changed in October of last year when the NFU accepted Pennsylvania's request for re-insatement. Along with it came a $70,000 grant to help get the fledgling organization on its feet. As of the end of last year, the new PFU had 446 members.
"NFU has a program of assistance for small states," Johnson acknowledged. "But we only assist if the organization has a clear strategic plan in place." NFU considers Pennsylvania to be a good bet for success, which is not the case for four other states that have lost their charters (Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho). Two of Pennsylvania's neighbors, New York and New Jersey, are also without the organization. The six New England states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island) have banded together as one chapter and are receiving help from the national office to advance their mission.
While there are still a number of concerns, the Pennsylvania Farmers Union members who were in attendance here on Monday expressed both desire and will to move forward.
"There has to be progress, or there's no assistance," Johnson explained compassionately. "The national board will be looking at your progress going forward."
Kim Miller, a farmer from Westmoreland County, serves as president of the new Pennsylvania Farmers Union, which is to be governed by a 12-member board of directors. Only nine were elected at the annual convention. Hannah Smith-Brubaker is the executive director. Anyone interested in joining the organization may call her at 717-576-0794 or by e-mail: email@example.com