Rules for Fools

During my first days of Lutheran grade school, I was surprised to learn that the world had only 10 rules. Sure, eight of them ordered what I “shalt not” do and just two told me what I must do. Still, no Lutheran worth his catechism ever had a problem with a negative four-to-one ratio.

But then Mrs. Kuring, my teacher, added more rules. No talking in school. No running in the hallway. No biting your classmates.

We quickly learned to follow Mrs. Kuring’s rules more diligently than the commandments because hers were backside-tested; the Big Ten were merely time-tested. Later, either through fear or faith, we learned to follow both because there would be hell to pay, either now or later, if we didn’t.

Presidents of the United States face the same trade-off: you can choose not to follow the rules but it can be a costly choice.

Donald J. Trump is a rule breaker. That was a key reason why the majority of rural voters chose him over his 2016 challenger. And he has kept his word; rule-making Washington has never seen, heard, or been hit with a tweeting tornado like The Donald.

Much of the President’s rule breaking, however, hasn’t yielded tangible results. In mid-July, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its 2018 budget for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) which, noted several Capitol Hill policy watchers, broadly and soundly rejected the deep cuts Trump had proposed for USDA only two months earlier.

The Senate bill also restored the undersecretary for rural development that Trump previously had ticketed to eliminate.

These setbacks did not set back the President. The same week of his Senate rebuke, Trump nominated Iowan Sam Clovis, a former campaign official and radio talk show host, to be USDA’s undersecretary of research, education, and economics.

It’s not a controversial, rule-bending choice. It’s an outrageous, rule-breaking choice. By statute, noted the July 24 San Jose (CA) Mercury-News, this “undersecretary is to be chosen from ‘distinguished scientists with specialized or significant experience in agricultural research, education and economics.’ By contrast… Clovis has never taken a graduate course in science and is openly skeptical of climate change.”

And, it went on, “The Senate should reject the nomination. Naming an anti-science blowhard to a job meant for a scientist would be like Ford picking a CEO who rides a horse to work.”

Despite that ringing denouncement, 22 of the most powerful, well-funded American farm and commodity groups, representing everything from dry beans to soybeans, offered Clovis a ringing endorsement in a flowery letter sent to Senate Ag Committee leaders.

“Some have suggested that Dr. Clovis is not qualified for this position due to his lack of hands-on science and research experience. We do not share this point of view,” it explained. After all, USDA “already employs some of the finest and most dedicated scientists in the world. They do not need a peer. They need someone to champion their work…”

Call it the Rick Perry Standard: just because you don’t know anything about a federal agency’s work—or even its name—doesn’t mean you can’t become its leader.

Three days after posting its We Love Clovis letter, Big Ag’s biggest ag groups learned—in a Senate Ag Committee hearing on farm credit and crop insurance, no less—that Clovis had labeled crop insurance, the central pillar of U.S. farm policy, “unconstitutional.”

When told of this Farm Bill heresy, the committee’s crop insurance-loving chairman, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, announced to many of the letter-sending farm group leaders in the hearing room, “If there is some nominee coming before this committee who says crop insurance is unconstitutional, they might as well not show up.”

The farm leaders didn’t flinch. Why would they? The rules, they recently learned, do not apply and the truth is simply what the loudest, most persistent yeller says it is.

Which brings us back to Mrs. Kuring. You don’t have to follow the rules but, sooner or later, there will be hell to pay.

© 2017 ag comm

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