The Obama Administration set up the National Rural Council in June. The idea was to coordinate federal government agencies as they worked in rural America -- that, and government officials say they will "listen" to citizens at "rural roundtables."
On Monday morning Obama Administration officials held a briefing on the formation of the White House Rural Council for 24 invited rural leaders. The meeting took place in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
The White House Rural Council was announced in June. No new staff were hired nor were any new offices set up. The Council is to be a coordinating body for existing cabinets.
While all of Washington is transfixed by the debate on the national debt, questioning the value of a federal government and even whether we must issue next month’s social security checks to widows and orphans, the Obama administration is making a case for improving the prospects of hard hit rural communities by making government work better. The administration is pressing to coordinate the Department of Agriculture’s routing of rural sewage with the Department of Transportation’s highway construction and the Department of Commerce’s plans for laying broadband fiber.
Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, who co-chairs the council with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, said the Council would set up “listening” sessions across the country, so that administration officials could hear directly from rural communities.
The White House is calling these sessions, coordinated through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “rural roundtables.” (Also, the White House has a “Rural” page, here.)
The meeting Monday was mostly about listening. Hosts for the Roosevelt Room meeting were Jon Carson, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, Doug McKalip of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, who led the briefing and conducted a question and answer session that lasted for 45 minutes of the hour-long session.
Invited participants represented many rural interests: electric co-ops, agriculture, insurance, telecommunications, state legislatures, health care, Indian tribes, and housing. Five organizations represented on the steering committee of the White House Rural Assembly attended. (Find the full list of those who attended at the end of this story.)
Secretary Vilsack began the meeting noting the importance of rural communities to the nation’s food, water, natural resources, and even military service, which is disproportionately high in small towns. He also conceded that the government had to do a better job of focusing on the needs of rural America. That goal was the reason why President Obama had created the White House Rural Council and why he had delegated its work to members of his cabinet.
Secretary Vilsack said that the White House Rural Council was charged both with better coordinating the way the federal government works in rural America and with creating a specific set of recommendations for the President to enact in the areas of rural opportunity, innovation, quality of life, and natural resources.
Further, the Secretary announced that there would be a series of cabinet level “listening sessions” to be held across rural America in the coming year. The purpose of the President’s cabinet participating in rural tours is both to explain what government can do and to discover rural concerns.
(Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder conducted so-called listening sessions last year on possible anti-trust violations in the food business. No action has been taken on that investigation, which began two years ago.)
In the exchange that followed, several questions focused on broadband deployment, ranging from lack of capital investment to the difficulty of delivering rural health care. Secretary Vilsack pointed out that even though much had been done to wire underserved regions, the 300 rural broadband projects currently funded still represent a relatively small portion of rural America and more needed to be done.
Chuck Fluharty, with the Rural Policy Research Institute, asked if the Council were sustainable, given the drive to reduce the size of the federal government. Secretary Vilsack is practiced at answering questions about farming and he put on a brave face in response to Fluharty, but he didn’t provide much in the way of an answer.
A group of the questions dealt with more sustainable energy use and the problems of building more conventional fossil fuel power plants. One question specifically pointed out regulatory burdens that prevent tribes from being able to convert vast solar and wind energy resources to electrical power. Secretary Vilsack pointed out the declining rate in foreign fuel consumption and spoke to the potential for agriculture to play a larger role in sustainable energy, meanwhile as making small farms more profitable. He also noted that the sources of sustainable energy are chiefly located in rural regions; the missing component, he said, may be transmission technology to get the power where it is needed. Vilsack expressed some optimism that breakthroughs on that front are imminent.
Several in the group praised the USDA for its work on local food and for its support of small farmers yet pointed out the dwindling numbers of young farmers and ranchers, indicating problems in maintaining family farms beyond the current generation. The National Farmers Union’s Mike Strantz asked about programs to encourage young people to take up farming.
The Secretary said that it was almost impossible for young people who have not grown up on farms to afford to go into farming. He also reflected that most of the time when he speaks to urban audiences about agriculture, the topic they want to discuss is crop subsidies, not the value of a local farmers market, not the low price of food or how to feed the hungry.
Secretary Vilsack also responded to questions related to philanthropy, discussing how government and philanthropy might work together in new ways to leverage resources more creatively for small communities and how American philanthropy generally has not responded to issues of rural child poverty and lack of development in rural areas. Secretary Vilsack indicated that he was on his way to address a Council on Foundations rural philanthropy meeting in Kansas City this week.
He pointed out that the changes in the role of government and the opportunities to work with new partners may prove to be a challenge for a bureaucracy that was more narrowly focused in a different time and different funding environment. He also pointed out that there had previously been no rural plan for foundations to respond to, and he expressed hope that the White House Rural Council might play an active role in creating such a plan.
Here are the people the White House had to town to talk about the Council:
American Farm Bureau: Mark Maslyn, Executive Director of Public Policy.
Center for Rural Strategies: Dee Davis, President.
Council of State Governments: Carolyn Orr, Rural Policy Analyst.
Farm Credit Council: Charles Dana, General Counsel.
Food Research and Action Center: Ellen Vollinger, Legal Director.
League of Rural Voters: Niel Ritchie, Executive Director.
National Association of State Departments of Agriculture: Megan McDonald, Assistant Director.
National Association of Conservation Districts: Gene Schmidt, President.
National Association of County Officials: Edwin Rosado, Legislative Director.
National Association of Development Organizations: Tim Ware, President.
National Conference of State Legislatures: Tamra Spielvogel, Senior Committee Director.
National Congress of American Indians: Peter Morris, Director of Strategy and Partnerships.
National Council of Farmer Cooperatives: Lisa Kelley, Vice-President and Chief of Staff.
National Farmers Union: Mike Stranz, Government Relations.
National Future Farmers of America Organization: Riley Pagett, National FFA President.
National Governors Association: Michele Nellenbach, Director of Natural Resources Committee;
National Rural Electric Cooperative Association: Dena Stoner, Senior VP.
National Rural Health Association: Alan Morgan, CEO.
National Rural Housing Coalition: Bob Rapoza, Ex. Sec.
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director.
National Telecommunications Cooperative Association: Mike Romano, Senior VP.
Rural Coalition: Lorette Picciano, Executive Director.
Rural Policy Research Institute: Chuck Fluharty, President.