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Farm bill failure gives Democrats opening into US House

RINGSTED, Iowa -- Democrats fighting an uphill battle to win a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives are trying to use rural angst over the failure of congressional Republicans to pass a farm bill to win some Midwestern seats in the Nov. 6 election.

The farm bill, which sets subsidies for everything from crop insurance to milk production, expired on Oct. 1 after the Republican majority in the House could not muster enough votes to pass a new law.

No race demonstrates the Democratic strategy better than in western Iowa, where Christie Vilsack, the wife of President Barack Obama's agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, is stressing the farm bill in a bid to unseat conservative Republican Representative Steve King.

“The lack of a farm bill right now has the farming community up in arms,” said Bryan Kruse, 34, who has two small farms and works for another farmer to pay the bills outside Ringsted, population 422. “We need to get something done.”

Kruse wants to know if he can still get federal crop insurance to protect his corn and soybeans against disasters like this year's drought.

Democrats need to gain 25 seats in the House to win back the majority they lost in the Republican sweep in 2010, and most analysts consider it a tall order.

Democrats are focusing on the farm bill in Iowa, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Colorado and Illinois. It is also a major issue in close U.S. Senate races in Montana and North Dakota, where Republican House members are seeking seats held by Democrats.

But convincing farmers and rural residents is tough in conservative western Iowa. Despite his concerns about the farm bill, lifelong Republican Kruse said he will vote for King, a conservative with a habit of making controversial statements.

“You can't blame that failure on one man,” Kruse said, who worries that electing a Democrat such as Vilsack would lead to burdensome and costly regulations for farmers.

A few decaying, abandoned farms near where Kruse works are a sign of the rural decline and slow population growth that cut Iowa's U.S. House seats to four from five after the 2010 census. Redistricting put Kruse in King's new enlarged district, a huge area covering 39 counties dotted with small cities and towns.

Vilsack, whose husband also was Iowa governor, touts the fact that the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate passed a farm bill, but the Republican House did not.

Steffen Schmidt, a politics professor at Iowa State University in Ames, says most Democrats have done a poor job of explaining that, apart from farm subsidies, the farm bill includes food stamps, school lunches and rural development money.

“A big failure of the Democrats is they have not explained the farm bill has broader economic and social implications,” Schmidt said. “Christie Vilsack has done better than other Democrats at making that point.”

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