Congress: No Clue, No Surprise

November, 2018

Washington -- Three political scientists got much attention this week with their study, written up in the New York Times as "Congress Has No Clue What Americans Want," subtitled "People in the U.S. House and Senate Have Wildly Inaccurate Perceptions of Our Opinions and Preferences."

The three academics polled voters in congressional districts on certain topics and then surveyed the respective congressional offices' senior staffers, only to find huge differences in how the two groups viewed the issues. Republican staffers were most out of touch with their constituents, but Democratic staffers were not far behind.

This is not a surprise. Some of my colleagues and I have been working for over a year on rural issues in the Farm Bill, attempting to help Congress improve conditions in rural America. We prepared a list of six issues reflecting what we believed were real needs and concerns in areas touched by the Farm Bill. We intentionally avoided use of hot-button partisan and ideological language and tailored our solutions so that they could be viewed as pragmatic and acceptable to both Democrats and Republicans. We tested our ideas with both liberal and conservative rural advocacy groups and generally got plaudits for identification of issues and creativity of solutions.

Mostly we approached Democratic staff on Capitol Hill, whose senators and members were working on the 2018 Farm Bill. Often we got a cool reception, if we could get in to see anyone at all. It was obvious that staff were more attuned to issues as presented to them by interest group lobbyists. They were not so accustomed to citizens coming to them with ideas that reflected the needs of their constituents.

For example, for the Farm Bill's largest program, SNAP (food stamps), we recommended that nutrition standards be raised, either by giving recipients incentives to purchase more nutritious foods or by using the higher WIC program standard for SNAP. Currently, much of SNAP goes to purchase of sodas and junk foods. We found little interest on the Hill in nutrition, because this year's SNAP battle was going to be fought politically over work requirements. We felt vindicated when a major study showed nutrition could be improved and billions of tax dollars could be saved through the kind of solutions we offered, but we were disappointed that Congress showed no interest.

Likewise, we offered Democratic staffers the joint analyses of USDA and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis about how to create jobs and economic development in rural America through more attention to local and regional food markets. We passed around copies of the recommendations as compiled in the book "Harvesting Opportunity" because no staffers we talked to had ever heard of it or were familiar with the ideas in it.

We also offered options on crop insurance reform, soil health and conservation, assistance to young farmers, and revitalization of the Extension Service to fight obesity and diabetes epidemics.

There were occasional exceptions in our visits when we found sympathetic ears. Two staff were particularly welcoming and leveled with us as to what was going on. The Democratic political leadership in Congress had decided soon after the 2016 elections that Democrats would not offer any "Washington" initiatives on rural America. Democrats up for election in 2018 would be on their own. In other words, the national Democratic leadership had already conceded that the party was perceived to be out of touch on rural issues and was choosing not to compete for the rural vote.

This was ironic, we thought, because if there is anywhere Democrats need to be offering constructive ideas to get votes, it is rural America. It turns out to be doubly ironic because Senate Agriculture Committee Democrats, under ranking member Debbie Stabenow, actually produced a respectable 2018 Farm Bill with many good features for rural America – far better than the House version – and achieved Senate passage on a bi-partisan 86-11 vote, no small accomplishment.

You would never know that on the hustings, however. There is no coherent Democratic platform on rural America. There is little to show that Democrats listen to rural constituents or care about the Farm Bill. There is everything to show that the study by the political scientists is largely on target in its conclusion that "Congress Has No Clue as to What Americans Want." That was certainly our first-hand experience as well.

Perhaps it is for the better that the Farm Bill has not yet passed Congress in final form and will have to be reconsidered either in the upcoming lame duck session or next year, in a new Congress that can start over on it. Perhaps next time around, if lessons are learned from the coming election returns and from insightful political science research, as cited above, there will be more attention given to actual constituent opinions and preferences.