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Op-Ed | The Hill | November 17, 2018

Dems Must Wield Power Against the Powerful to Win Back Rural America

Congressional Oversight

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Much of the commentary surrounding the midterm elections focuses on the divide between increasingly Democratic metropolitan areas and increasingly intensely Republican rural and small-town America.

Some pundits and former elected officials claim an emphasis on “the opioid crisis” and rural economic development policy proposals can address Democrats’ weaknesses in areas with disproportionate power in the Senate.

Other pundits ignore Phil Bredesen’s landslide defeat in the U.S. Senate race in Tennessee and imply Democrats could staunch their rural bleeding by nominating more conservative, more male and more white nominees.

Progressive activists, alternately uninspired by technocratic policy papers and revulsed by the implication that only conservative white male candidates can win, scoff at those proposals, but as the saying goes, “A plan beats no plan.”

Progressives need an alternative to selling out the party’s greatly overdue commitment to diversity and something more attention-grabbing than ever-more clever policy proposals.

A good solution requires a good understanding of the problem. I believe Democrats’ problems are two-fold; one, a history of insufficient energy in office in fighting the villains victimizing rural and small-town America; and two, extreme difficulty communicating with voters in media deserts.

Thus, I propose that in 2019, Democrats do better than promising to fight on behalf of rural and small-town Americans. Democrats should actually wield government oversight power to fight for them.

Here’s how Democrats can address their substantive and communications problems in tandem. House Democrats can create a “Special Committee on Rural America” designed to investigate the very real struggles in much of small-town and rural America.

This committee might ultimately help standing committees develop legislation. However, the principal purpose of this committee would be to conduct congressional oversight that identifies the villains draining the lifeblood away from struggling sectors of the country and to very publicly pick fights with these villains.

The hypothesis is that in order to articulate solutions that might persuade the persuadable in those communities, policy prescriptions must be embedded in battles capable of gaining traction in both social media and news coverage. Trump’s lies about a “caravan” are simply more provocative than even the best white paper.

Thus, Democrats must not just identify economic problems in antiseptic policy proposals, but actually demonstrate an eagerness to wield power against the powerful on behalf of small-town America.

That would mean vicious cross-examination of rich opioid pushers, angry back-and-forth with executives from Monsanto, examining the practices of the processing goliaths and hauling before Congress the “seed, livestock and banking” monopolists who “are punishing rural America.”

The Democrat who ran against Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), J.D. Scholten, made inroads in rural western Iowa in part by highlighting issues of monopoly power. How much greater traction could the party achieve as a whole if it actively used genuine government power, such as aggressive subpoenas, against these villains?

Videos of angry back-and-forths of these oversight battles shared on social media would receive more attention than white papers. News of billionaires resisting subpoenas would yield more interest than policy proposals with which Trump never engages.

Policy proposals resulting from the context of melees with corporate executives are going to seem like a political party’s authentic priority in a way that a paper posted on a corner of a candidate’s website never can.

Basically, if the forces destroying the family farm, consolidating sources of farm credit and destroying small-town retail come to hate a political party, that political party will generate the credibility among small-town voters necessary to earn a real hearing.

This proposed committee would not be stuck in D.C.; hearings would be held across the country. The committee’s efforts would require dedicated staffers to push each and every investigative step out on social media while making members available to rural radio, print, television and podcasts.

This proposal has a historical basis in the considerable history of rural populist oversight in Congress. The banking committees were in large part led by populists popular in rural parts of Texas and Wisconsin from the 1960s until the early 1990s — Rep. Wright Patman (D-Texas) and Rep. Henry Gonzalez (D-Texas) in the House and Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) in the Senate.

In addition, as an official Senate history noted, “No senator ever gained greater political benefits from chairing a special investigating committee than did Missouri’s Harry S. Truman.”

As Robert Weissman has noted, “committee investigations highlighted deceptive practices on credit reporting, interest overcharges, […] and abuses in the securities industry,” and even “relentlessly scrutinized the Federal Reserve Board for its tendency to favor creditors with tight money policies.”

And as Martin Longman has demonstrated, anti-monopoly politics has a deep, albeit oft-forgotten, history of resonance in small-town America.

Democrats have a chance to return to the roots of past successes in non-urban America by wielding the actual power of congressional oversight against deserving villains — will they take it?

Jeff Hauser is the founder and director of the Revolving Door Project, an initiative which scrutinizes executive branch appointments to ensure political appointees serve the broad public interest, at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. 

Congressional Oversight

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