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.
Unfortunately, farmers’ common sense is of minimal consideration to the EPA — the agency requires that its proposals be based on purely abstract, scientific assessments, rarely taking practical considerations into account. “The EPA doesn’t care where the pollution is coming from, and our lungs don’t care,” John Walker, clean air director at the National Resources Defense Council told Reuters in an interview last year. In some states, opponents have argued, the stricter dust standards under consideration would fall below naturally occurring levels, rendering them all but impossible to meet. Violations could result in fines of nearly $40,000 a day, and lead to higher food prices and job losses in rural areas.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House has co-sponsored legislation to preempt the new EPA restrictions. The bill, dubbed the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011, would block revisions to the dust standard for one year and give state and local governments greater flexibility to draft their own set of regulations. A number of prominent agricultural groups have signed on in support. Rep. Robert Hurt (R., Va.), who co-authored the bill with Rep. Kristi Noem (R., S.D.), has said the legislation is necessary to remove uncertainty and restore confidence among farmers and small business owners.
In response to Obama’s recent comments, Steve Foglesong, former president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said that the president “is out of touch with rural America” and that he either “has no clue what regulations his bureaucratic agencies are proposing or he simply doesn’t care.”
On the contrary, Obama argues, it’s the farm folk who don’t have a clue when it comes to government regulation. In an interview with the Brownfield Ag News in Illinois, the president reiterated his belief that concerns over new regulations on agriculture were unfounded, demanding to hear “specifics,” as opposed to “general accusations that the EPA’s coming after agriculture,” which he said are frequently ginned up by fear mongering lobbyists in Washington.
— Andrew Stiles is the Franklin Center’s 2011 Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow.