INSIDE WASHINGTON/Congress revives rural caucus
County and city officials representing rural areas say they are relieved that a group of House members has revived an advisory board designed to represent rural interests in the nation’s capital. “It’s been difficult not to have a unified voice or a place to go,” says Blue Earth (Minn.) County Commissioner Colleen Landkamer, who chairs the National Association of Counties’ Rural Action Caucus.
The Congressional Rural Caucus operated from 1972 until 1995, when it fell victim to Republican cost-cutting measures after the GOP took control of Congress. Since then, rural congressional lawmakers have failed to forge a united front to fight for issues that are uniquely important to their constituents. (Agricultural issues, which draw plenty of attention, are the exception.)
“Typically, we work together on farm policy issues through membership on the [House] Agriculture Committee, but there is so much more to rural interests that isn’t necessarily advocated in an organized and concerted way,” says Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), a co-chairman of the caucus.
More than 140 lawmakers joined the effort to resuscitate the caucus, and those representing rural areas now are flocking to the newly formed group. In fact, the idea of a Rural Caucus proved so important to Rep. JoAnn Emerson (R-Mo.) that she decided against a campaign for a Republican leadership post because she did not want to sacrifice time away from her job as a caucus co-chair.
Additionally, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) have signaled their support for the bipartisan caucus. Caucus supporters view the Hastert-Gephardt blessing as significant since the two have disagreed on most other legislative initiatives this year.
While the congressional caucus is expected to fight for America’s farmers, there are a host of other issues that rank high on its “to-do” list. Caucus Co-chair Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) says the group has narrowed its priorities into eight categories: agriculture and natural resources; the drug war; business and economic development; education and the workforce; health care; transportation; telecommunications; and trade and international relations. “Those are the core areas that I think make a lot of sense for us to be paying a lot of attention to and working to solve,” Moran says.
Nearing the end of his eight years in the White House, President Clinton has expressed interest in leaving a legacy of having helped rural areas. During an April speech in North Carolina, he pledged to fight to help rural communities overcome the technology gap that separates them from their urban cousins. Moran agrees that the digital divide is a key issue. Bridging it is necessary not only to help spur economic growth, but also to deliver basic medical services, he says.
Pomeroy notes that the nation’s population continues to shift to urban and suburban areas, and the Capitol Hill newsletter, Congressional Quarterly, estimates that, currently, only 13 percent of the nation’s 435 congressional districts can be described as rural. The next U.S. Census figures, which affect congressional representation, could decrease that number further.
“This is the most urban House in the history of the country,” Pomeroy says. “After reapportionment, it will be even more urban. In the House, we have to work very hard to make sure [rural interests] get [their] fair share.”
Landkamer points out that urban and rural areas face many common problems, and the caucus will help in the search for solutions. “The Caucus doesn’t take anything away from suburban or urban America,” she says. “What it does is make the country a better place.”