TO some, it's a treeless swath of Montana range. To others, a dairy farm in the Pennsylvania hills or a field of Kansas wheat. But in a nation bursting with suburbs and office parks, rural America is too often seen as little more than a pretty snapshot.
Behind that picturesque image has long lurked a reality of political power. Legislators from rural areas have held top positions in Washington for decades and promoted programs from farm subsidies to rural electrification to aid their often hard-pressed constituents.
Today, as Congress works to narrow the size and scope of government, many of those rural-oriented Washington efforts are at risk. The inexorable rise of suburban areas has diluted the historic congressional position of rural America, and budget-cutting is in fashion, not federal peanut-price supports.
Yet rural lawmakers are fighting to preserve as much as possible of their federal farm largess, and to win concessions in Medicare reform and other legislation that heavily affects rural areas.
''There is a policy divide between people and place,'' says Merriwether Jones of the Washington-based Aspen Institute. ''Economists think in terms of people, that people should go where the jobs are. But others take into account the love of place. They believe their communities are important, and they'll stay there even if they make less money.''
Indeed, recent times have tested the resolve of rural people. They've seen cutbacks in Amtrak and airline services as well as consolidation of food-processing companies. Improvements in farm technology and the rise of corporate agriculture have increased production but reduced the number of jobs in some areas.
The 1990 congressional redistricting left Washington's rural caucus with fewer members than ever before. According to one lobbyist, there are between 60 and 70 rural districts left in the House of Representatives, a figure not much higher than the 52 seats allotted to California. Already, many rural development programs have been scaled back.
Yet rural advocates still wield some political clout. Last week, a coalition of 30 rural lawmakers in the House, led by Iowa Republican Rep. Jim Nussle, won concessions in Medicare legislation that, they say, will help keep profits high enough in rural areas to prevent many health-care providers from abandoning them. In addition, rural advocates may win a fight to provide the same incentives to telecommunications companies.
But the farm bill is another story. At present, rural lawmakers are threatening to hijack the entire GOP budget if changes are not made to the Freedom to Farm Act, which would trim $13.4 billion from farm programs over seven years. There is no indication yet whether the GOP leadership will try to accommodate members from cotton, rice, and dairy states, or ride roughshod over them.
''It comes down to votes,'' Mr. Nussle says. ''[Rural lawmakers] still have the votes in combination to sensitize the leadership. Rural areas can't win anything alone, but they can't get anything passed without us.''
While Nussle is adamant about protecting some rural programs, he says that in aggregate, Republican policies will benefit rural areas. Not only will commodity prices rise once supports are reduced, he predicts, but other facets of the Republican budget plan, such as capital gains cuts and the repeal of environmental regulations, will spur growth.
Some farm advocates and environmentalists disagree. They say the GOP plan has less to do with the interests of rural communities than with offering profit opportunities for agricultural conglomerates. Curbs on regulations, says Nancy Danielson of the National Farmers Union, will benefit large, concentrated hog and poultry operations ''by allowing them to pollute.''
But beyond this week's budget debate, many rural advocates say the problem with rural policy is a lack of vision, a problem, they say, that has been exacerbated by the political and economic rise of the suburbs.
''Suburbs are where the power is, where the money is, and where the solutions come from,'' says Chuck Fluhart, director of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri at Columbia. ''But [these solutions] don't work very well in a rural context. If place is important, and I think it is, then we have to think about the nuances of those policies.''
Americans need to consider how broad policy goals, like a balanced budget, will affect people in different regions, and begin to craft comprehensive land-development plans, Mr. Fluhart says,
Indeed, there may be reason for legislators to start thinking in broader terms about land policy. According to Fluhart, initial data shows that rural populations are starting to grow faster, gobbling up farmland for housing developments. ''If we believe that the land between cities should thrive,'' Fluhart says, ''then we have to link our policy objectives.''
In some ways, the first signs of linkage are already appearing in Congress. According to Nussle, rural lawmakers have begun to look harder for so-called ''crossover issues'' that transcend the divisions between urban and rural communities. By finding common ground, he explains, these two disparate groups wield more influence over the suburban leadership, embodied by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican.
The larger goal for rural communities, says Mr. Jones of the Aspen Institute, is to create ''wealth-generating'' economies, rather than continuing to provide inputs for the larger, more-dynamic urban and suburban economies.