'Prairie power' marks Capitol battles

From Medicare to highways, lawmakers bonded by rural concerns wield disproportionate clout.

America's High Plains are losing a 70-year battle to keep people on the land, but the region's clout in Washington is rising, especially in the Senate.

From Medicare to energy policy, the nation's most sparsely populated states are stamping their concerns on top domestic issues. New federal funding formulas in the works for highways and homeland security give a big advantage to rural states. And despite fierce partisan pressures in a closely divided Congress, rural lawmakers routinely work across party lines to make their priorities stick.

To the dismay of hard-line conservatives, rural America is emerging as the main obstacle to the White House reform agenda: If you fix the market, all boats will rise. In the heartland, too many family farms, hospitals and schools are sinking. And their representatives insist that markets alone - whether for soybeans, health care insurance, or school vouchers won't solve the problem. They want government benefits targeted at rural constituencies, and they're getting them.

"The clout of rural America exceeds its geographic representation by orders of magnitude," says Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "There are conservatives who should be with us, but they're not. They don't buy into the free market idea so readily. They just want to be sure that this part of Iowa or Montana gets reimbursement rates worthy of that lawmaker's clout," he adds.

It's not clear whether Prairie lawmakers will ever dominate the institution as their southern counterparts did for much of the last century. But their power draws on some of the same resources: seniority, key committee assignments, a loyal electorate, and strong agreement on what they need from Washington. Southern senators used their years as committee chairmen to load their states with defense plants and military bases - and to quash civil rights bills. The High Plains senators want to stem the heartland's population drain, or at least ease its impact with crop subsidies, water projects, and more generous social security checks and Medicare reimbursements. They want to keep federal dollars flowing. So far, they're doing well.

The key to Plains Power in the Senate is the Finance Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, along with ranking Democrat Max Baucus of Montana. This committee is the gateway for tax cuts and Medicare reform - the top Bush domestic priorities in the 108th Congress - and a strong advocate for the needs of rural constituents.

Earlier this year, the committee added $25 billion for rural health care providers to both tax and Medicare legislation. Although the additional funding was dropped from the tax bill after negotiations with the House, it is far more likely to be included in the Medicare bill because House leaders need the votes of rural Democrats on this bill.

Rural priorities shifted the Senate debate on Medicare reform. President Bush wanted strong incentives for seniors to leave traditional fee-for-service Medicare for private insurers. But Senators Grassley and Baucus said that the plan would not work in underserved, sparsely populated areas, and demanded that the government guarantee prescription drug coverage if the market fails. That blunts the incentive for everyone, advocates say.

The rural caucus is also making its mark on the energy debate. After a 25-year fight, corn producers may be close to getting a federal requirement for gasoline refiners to double their use of renewable fuel, such as ethanol. This would mean more jobs and higher prices for corn producers, but much higher fuel prices in states like California and New York. And the rift runs through the hearts of both parties. "I believe this amounts to a wealth transfer of literally billions of dollars from every state in the nation to a handful of ethanol producers," says Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California.

Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota aired his first reelection ad, which touted his success at getting ethanol into the energy bill.

A similar regional rift runs through party views on tax cuts and deficits. Though Plains senators like Senator Daschle and North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad (D) led the fight to curb Bush tax cuts in the name of fiscal discipline, they also locked in a $414.2 billion farm bill over 10 years - a $73.5 billion increase over the previous farm bill. The Senators acknowledged pressure to pass the bill early, before big deficits returned.

"It's an ironic consideration that fiscal conservatism is a near religion in the Dakotas when it comes to local and state taxation, but that doesn't seem to get in the way of efforts to seek and receive federal funding," says Bob Burns, a political scientist at South Dakota State University in Brookings.

ANOTHER quiet battle is unfolding over the federal highway funding bill, up for renewal this year. Those funds are key for large states with small populations. "We [the High Plains states] will really do well on the highway bill," predicts North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan (R).

Rural states are also winning the battle on how to distribute federal homeland security funds. Last month, a Senate committee approved a formula that guarantees all states an equal share of the first 40 percent of funds.

"[California], a state with two major borders, facing west on a coast, plus the presence of [Los Angeles International Airport] - one of the few locations for many years identified as an active terrorist target - is getting much less per capita than Wyoming or North Dakota. These levels are extreme," says Tim Ransdell, executive director of the California Institute for Federal Policy Research. According to this formula, he says, North Dakota gets $28.68 per person, compared with $4.68 in California - a loss of $65 million compared to allotments under traditional methods.

Rural issues are dividing parties over broadcasting regulation. Citing dangers to rural areas, Senator Dorgan led a successful move in the Senate Commerce Committee to reverse a June 2 Federal Communications Commission decision to lift the cap on cross ownership of TV stations and newspapers in the same community. With so many broadcasters pumping in news from out of state, there's no one to answer phones at local stations in case of an emergency, says Dorgan, citing a recent case of a toxic gas spill in North Dakota that went unreported until it was too late to warn people. "The genius of the Constitution is that I have the same vote that [California Sen.] Dianne Feinstein has or [New York Sen.] Chuck Schumer [has].... That's only true in the Senate," says Dorgan.

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