Discover more from Letters from an American
November 2, 2023
In a speech yesterday in Northfield, Minnesota, President Joe Biden explained his economic vision to rural Americans. “Over the past 40 years or so, we’ve had a practice in America—an economic practice called trickle-down economics, and it hit rural America especially hard,” he said. “It hollowed out Main Street, telling farmers the only path to success was to get big or get out.”
At the same time, he said, “[t]ax cuts for big corporations encouraged companies to grow bigger and bigger, move jobs and production overseas for cheaper labor, and undercut local small businesses. Meat-producing companies and the retail grocery chains consolidated, leaving farmers [and] ranchers with few choices about where to sell their products, reducing their bargaining power. Corporations that sell seed, fertilizer, and even farm equipment used their outsized market power to change farmers and charge them and ranchers unfair prices.”
Biden noted that the U.S. has lost more than 400,000 family farms in the past 40 years, an area of more than 140 million acres of farmland, equivalent to an area the size of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota combined. Family farms have failed, and as they did so, small businesses, hospitals, schools, and communities also suffered.
Young people feel they have no choice but to leave home “in search of good-paying jobs and a chance at the American Dream.”
Biden explained that his plan to invest in America would create new and better markets and new income streams to help rural areas thrive. He noted that $20 billion of the Inflation Reduction Act will go to helping farmers and ranchers adjust to climate change by changing cover crops and managing nutrients and grazing, while urging farmers to diversify from single crops and sell in local markets.
Biden emphasized that the administration is promoting competition in agricultural markets, noting that currently just four big corporations control more than half the market in beef, pork, and poultry. If just one of their processing plants goes offline, it can cause massive supply chain disruptions (as the closing of a baby formula plant did in 2022). “[T]here’s something wrong,” he said, “when just 7% of the American farms get nearly 90% of the farm income.”
In addition to the existing national investments in power grids and broadband that will help rural communities, Biden announced $1 billion to fix aging rural infrastructure systems like electricity, water, and waste water systems that haven’t been updated in decades; $2 billion to help farmers fight climate change; $145 million for clean energy technologies like solar panels that will help lower electric bills; and $274 million for rural high-speed internet expansion.
The administration’s vision for rural America appears to be part of a larger vision for restoring competition to the U.S. economy and thus is closely tied to the administration’s push to break up monopolies. In July 2021, Biden promised to interpret antitrust laws in the way they had been understood traditionally, not as the U.S. government began to interpret them in the 1980s. Then, following the argument advanced by the solicitor general of the United States at the time, Robert Bork, the government concluded that economic consolidation was fine so long as it promoted economic efficiencies that, at least in the short term, cut costs for consumers.
Biden vowed to return to the traditional understanding of antitrust principles championed by presidents all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the last century, arguing that protecting economic competition protects workers, promotes innovation, and keeps consumer prices down. To that, the coronavirus pandemic added an awareness of the need to protect supply chains.
“Bidenomics is just another way of saying ‘the American Dream,’” Biden said. “Forty years ago, trickle-down economics limited the dream to those at the top. But I believe every American willing to work hard should be able to get a job, no matter where they live—in the heartland, in small towns—to raise their kids on a good paycheck and keep their roots where they grew up.”
In contrast to Biden’s outreach to farmers, House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) is facing a dilemma over the nation’s next farm bill, which must be passed by the end of the year. According to Clark Merrefield of The Journalist’s Resource, Congress usually debates and renews the farm bill every five years, and the last one passed in 2018.
Farm bills include price support for farm products, especially corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice, peanuts, dairy, and sugar. It also includes crop insurance, conservation programs, and a wide variety of other agricultural programs, making the farm bill hugely popular in rural areas that focus on farming.
Also included in the measure are nutritional programs for low-income Americans, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. SNAP serves 41 million low-income Americans, but as a member of the far-right Republican Study Committee, Johnson called for cutting SNAP benefits. Now his far-right colleagues are echoing his position, saying that the need to renew the farm bill is a great opportunity to make significant cuts to SNAP, especially since the farm bill is expected to bear a price tag of more than $1 trillion for the first time in our history.
“I can’t imagine the Mike Johnson that we know would pass up the opportunity to secure as many conservative wins as possible in this farm bill,” a Republican aide told Meredith Lee Hill of Politico, “[a]nd that means serious SNAP reforms.”
But even some Republicans—primarily those who hail from agricultural states—object to loading the farm bill up with the poison pill of SNAP cuts, knowing such a tactic would repel Democrats, whose votes will be necessary to pass the measure as far-right Republicans balk.
It will take a deft hand to get the measure through Congress, and its failure at Johnson’s hands will infuriate hard-hit rural areas. It is one more thing to add to the new speaker’s to-do list, as the deadline for funding the government is looming. The continuing resolution funding the government at 2023 levels, the measure that cost Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) his speakership, expires in just over two weeks, on November 17.
Johnson’s willingness to load bills with poison pills that his conference likes showed today in the House’s passage of Republicans’ aid bill for Israel—Ukraine aid had been cut away—along with dramatic cuts to funding the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), a provision that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office warned would add to the deficit rather than reducing it. Knowing that the measure will not pass the Senate, a number of Democrats voted for it, likely to avoid attacks from conservative opponents.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) says the Senate won’t even take up the House bill. Instead, the Senate continues to work on its own strongly bipartisan bill that ties together aid to Israel and Ukraine.
As Kate Riga of Talking Points Memo put it, if the Senate continues to work in this bipartisan way, we will continue to see the same pattern we’ve seen throughout this Congress: “Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans and House Democrats all supporting more or less the same thing, with a chunk of House Republicans out on a branch alone.”
After an angry fight last night over Senator Tommy Tuberville’s (R-AL) holds on military promotions, in which Republican senators joined Democrats in confronting him, the Senate today confirmed General David Allvin to be Air Force chief of staff and Admiral Lisa Franchetti as chief of naval operations, by votes of 95 to 1. Franchetti is the first woman to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Wednesday’s fight appears to have been prompted by the hospitalization of acting Marines Commandant General Eric Smith after an apparent heart attack. Smith was holding down two high-level positions at once owing to Tuberville’s holds, and he had warned his schedule was “not sustainable.” Although the Pentagon says Tuberville is endangering national security, Tuberville insists that his hold on almost 400 military promotions is not hurting the military.
The new additions mean there are no vacancies on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the first time since July.