The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Belkin reported this week that "anger against incumbent Democrats echoes across the rural Midwest." Belkin cited a WSJ/NBC poll from last month showing that Midwesterners and rural Americans are even more likely than other voters to disapprove of President Obama and to think the country is on the wrong track.
"There's little doubt that the Midwest is the Democrat's toughest region this year," Democratic pollster Tom Jensen concedes. "If the election was today, the party would almost certainly lose the governorships it holds in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania," plus a host of Midwest Senate seats.
But why? One underreported reason is the belief, widespread among Farm Belt residents, that Obama administration environmental regulators are gunning for them.
Farmers, ranchers, and foresters "are increasingly frustrated and bewildered by vague, overreaching, and unnecessarily burdensome EPA regulations," a U.S. senator charged last week. They "are facing at least a dozen new regulatory requirements, each of which will add to their costs, making it harder for them to compete.… [M]ost if not all of these regulations rely on dubious rationales."
Significantly, the protesting senator was not a farm-state Republican making partisan hay. It was Blanche Lincoln, the Arkansas Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Facing bleak re-election prospects in her heavily rural state, Lincoln convened a September 23 hearing to assess "the impact of EPA regulation on agriculture." Her clear, if tacit, message to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and the White House was: You people are killing our election prospects in the heartland.
Lincoln ticked off examples of onerous EPA intrusions: unworkable "spray drift" pesticide regulations; proposed ambient air-quality standards that would impose impossible dust-reduction requirements on farmers; "wetlands" regulations that put even bone-dry areas off-limits to agricultural use; an ideological bias toward environmentalists when resolving Clean Water Act lawsuits.
"You're hammering the little guy," Nebraska Republican Mike Johanns told EPA administrator Jackson. Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, delivered a blunt message from his constituents: "The Environmental Protection Agency has become Public Enemy Number One of our farmers and ranchers."
This bipartisan barrage put Jackson on the defensive. "The concern in the countryside that I've heard when I've gone out," she acknowledged, "is that somehow the EPA 'has it in' for the agricultural sector." Jackson denied any such intent, but she had no luck convincing the agriculture-industry representatives present.
"Farmers and ranchers have never felt more challenged and threatened in their livelihood than they do today from the continuous onslaught of regulations and requirements from the Environmental Protection Agency," said Rich Hillman, vice president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau.
Among his examples: "EPA wants us to build retaining walls around fuel tanks in the middle of our fields and pastures. This would cost us thousands of dollars to mitigate -- what? EPA is attempting to address a problem which simply is not there." Hillman also cited proposed new EPA regulations on dust, whose mitigation would be prohibitively expensive for many farmers and ranchers.
Jay Vroom, president of Croplife America, a trade association, complained about conflicting regulatory requirements from the EPA, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service concerning compliance with the Endangered Species Act. Also testifying was Jere White, executive director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association.
White provided a vivid case study of how environmental activists and trial lawyers rely on intrusive EPA regulations to intimidate manufacturers, users, and even proponents of agrochemicals. He described how he has been personally targeted by personal-injury trial lawyers merely for publicly defending atrazine, an herbicide used widely and safely for a half-century by corn, sorghum, and sugar cane growers.
"Trial lawyers joined forces with environmental activists and sought to regulate through the courts what science could not support within the EPA regulatory process," White said.
Giving impetus to the attorneys' lawsuits was EPA's groundless about-face last year about the chemical's safety. The agency itself estimated that farming without atrazine would cost corn growers $28 an acre and cause sugar-cane crop losses from 10 to 40 percent. Moreover, its safety has been confirmed in some 6,000 studies, here and abroad. After a dozen years of reviewing these, the EPA in 2005 found "no harm that would result to the general U.S. population" from its continued use. On that basis, it re-registered atrazine in 2006.
But in 2009, after Obama appointees took the agency's reins, EPA -- in defiance of all previous safety studies, but in admitted response to alarmist claims by environmentalist pressure groups and the media -- ordered a complete re-re-registration examination of atrazine, to include four more Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) reviews.
This reversal infuriates growers who depend on the weed-killer. It also puts atrazine's manufacturer, Syngenta Crop Protection, and even supporters like Jere White, directly in the crosshairs of personal-injury attorneys, who have been buoyed by the EPA's expressed concerns.
"I testified in support of atrazine at last week's SAP, sharing our concerns over trial-attorney harassment of stakeholders as part of my comments," White told the senators. "The very next day, activist attorneys sought and obtained subpoenas against Kansas Corn, Kansas Grain Sorghum, and me personally." The subpoenas order White to produce tens of thousands of private memos, emails, public statements, speeches, and other documents spanning more than a decade.
"With fifty years of safe use," White concluded, "if you cannot defend atrazine, what product is there that we will be able to use?"
Questions like these echo throughout the Farm Belt these days. Mired in recession, plagued by the constant challenges intrinsic to their professions, growers and ranchers look upon the EPA's overbearing regulatory apparatus as the epitome of everything that they detest about Washington, D.C. Their anger and frustration is reflected in sinking poll support for the party in power. "Is it any wonder that the American public is so upset?" asked Croplife's Jay Vroom, in a pointed reference to the coming elections.
Few are more aware of this rebellious mood than beleaguered Democratic incumbents such as Blanche Lincoln.
"It is truly the uncertainty and unpredictability that comes out of Washington that is going to fail us in putting our economy back on track and people back to work," she declared.
She might have added: "… and fail in putting people like me back to work."