Sen. Hillary Clinton addresses National Rural Assembly
Sen. Clinton addresses National Rural Assembly Photo by M.A. Pember

You’d think with 17 and a half presidential candidates — how else would you describe former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel but as a percentage of a full candidate? — at least one could show up for an in-the-flesh meeting with about 400 people from 43 states interested in the future of rural America all gathered a cab ride’s distance from Capitol Hill. Not one did, however, but New York Sen. Hillary Clinton did beam in on a live video connection — and she came darn close to creating real news.

Sen. Clinton came within a whisper of renaming the Department of Agriculture the Department of Rural Affairs. (Listen below to Sen. Clinton’s remarks.)

The Senator addressed the National Rural Assembly, a three-day event sponsored by the Kellogg and Ford foundations. She began with an extensive (and rehearsed) accounting of her connection to places outside Chicago (her place of birth) and New York City (her home). She reminded people that upper New York state had 35,000 farms and she touched on themes common in many rural communities — jobs, stemming the migration of young people from, the potential in alternative energy. Clinton even was able to call out to about a dozen people in the gathering, in the best tradition of a seersucker-clad pol speaking at a July 4 picnic.

The first question from the crowd (read by Kellogg officer Ali Webb) asked if Clinton would consider changing “the name and the mission” of the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Rural Affairs. The Senator seemed genuinely startled and intrigued by the notion. “That’s a great idea,” Clinton answered, her eyes bugging. “I really like that idea”¦I wish I had thought of that”¦Lets talk about that, it’s a terrific idea.”

Marco ‘Tony’ Reyes of Comite de Bien Estar, San Luiz, AZ,
discussed a national rural agenda at the Rural Assembly

Photo by M.A. Pember

Marco 'Tony" Reyes

The crowd loved it — because the crowd was not made up of corn, cotton, sugar, rice or wheat producers. Changing the name of the Department of Agriculture is meaningless, of course. It’s just a couple of words. But Sen. Clinton was talking in code. She was saying, yes, the emphasis on the support payments for crops (like corn, wheat and rice) needs to be lessened and more time (and money) should be spent on rural development. Less money should go to extremely large farms, more money should be available for business loans, expansion of broadband, water and sewer projects and rural health care.

This is the key fight in Congress, between those who would put a cap on commodity payments and steer more money to rural development and those who would keep payments as they are. So far, Congress is deadlocked. A key House subcommittee voted unanimously in June to keep the commodity program just the way it is. Meanwhile, the Washington Post published a story on the disparities between commodity payments and rural development. And the lopsided nature of the current system was documented in a report from the Southern Rural Development Initiative showing the Department of Agriculture spends most of its money on mega-farms, not on helping poor, rural communities. (Large pdf of SRDI report is here.

(Meanwhile, a video clip has emerged from a 1994 debate between a much younger Mitt Romney and Sen. Ted Kennedy (who looks remarkably the same), reports the Iowa Independent. In the discussion, Romney calls for a reduction in agricultural subsidies — which is a less popular opinion in Iowa than Massachusetts. Independent contributor Doug Burns reminds us that Iowa is the third largest beneficiary of crop subsidies in the nation.)

Sen. Clinton picked a side in that discussion this week simply by picking a name. Time will tell if she meant what she seemed to say.

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