Despite a recent Gallup poll showing that just 26 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the economy, President Obama encountered amazingly few critics over the course of his taxpayer-funded bus tour across the Midwest. It wasn’t until the final two stops on the tour, in the small Illinois towns of Atkinson and Alpha, that questioners broached what has been a principle grievance among many in the business community for quite some time: an overly burdensome regulatory regime.
“Please don’t challenge us with more rules and regulations from Washington, D.C.,” implored a man on Wednesday, describing himself as a corn and soybean farmer in Atkinson. “We would prefer to start our day in a tractor cab or combine cab rather than filling out forms and permits to do what we’d like to do.”
Phillip Nelson, president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, concurs, urging Obama to “put some common sense back into these regulatory discussions so we don’t regulate farmers out of business.”
The president’s response was typical of the lofty condescension he reserves for those who dare to challenge or disagree with his policies. “Don’t always believe what you hear,” Obama told the farmer in Atkinson, urging the man to “contact the USDA,” which, he promised, would easily explain to the misguided sap that his concerns were “frankly unfounded.”
Indeed, any time the president attempts to give advice on how to run a business, “don’t always believe what you hear” is an appropriate maxim. Not only did Obama wrongly identify the federal organization responsible for the regulations suffered by the farmer in Atkinson — regarding dust pollution, water runoff (overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency) and noise pollution (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) — but, as it turns out, directly contacting a massive federal bureaucracy isn’t exactly the best way to get a satisfactory answer to questions about government policies, much less to alleviate concerns about those policies. This was clearly demonstrated by the industrious reporting of Politico’s M. J. Lee, who, after a day’s worth of phone calls, was only able to elicit the following (far-from-edifying) response from the federal government:
Secretary [of Agriculture Tom] Vilsack continues to work closely with members of the Cabinet to help them engage with the agricultural community to ensure that we are separating fact from fiction on regulations because the administration is committed to providing greater certainty for farmers and ranchers.
All assurances aside, the agricultural community is far from persuaded. “The EPA has gone far beyond enforcement of rules, overstepped its authority and begun to exercise legislative power in administering environmental law,” Nelson tells National Review Online in a statement. This “regulatory overreach,” he says, threatens to drive up costs. Farmers (as well as the lawmakers who represent them) are particularly concerned with the EPA’s forthcoming regulatory review, as called for in the Clean Air Act. The agency’s scientific panel has said that while the science of measuring “coarse particulate material” (i.e., dust) remains uncertain, the EPA would be justified in either retaining current regulatory standard or tightening them by half. Significant quantities of dust, the EPA argues, can pose a significant health risk. “Small particulates less than 10 micrometers in diameter post the greatest problems because they can get deep into your lungs and some may even get into your bloodstream,” the EPA writes on its website. “Exposure to such particles can affect both your lungs and your heart.”
Most farmers, of course, are well aware of these risks. They operate in rural areas where dust is as naturally occurring as dirt, and is an unavoidable byproduct of their everyday activities. Many argue that mere “common sense” is sufficient to combat these risks, in lieu of burdensome restrictions, which could force farmers to resort to unreasonable and expensive dust-control measures such as constantly watering down gravel and dirt roads. Farm advocates say that the costs associated with new dust regulations would far outweigh the (minimal) benefits to personal health or the environment.