Graphic via COURIER.
Graphic via COURIER.

“You know, we’re called a flyover state, but we’re incredibly important to this country— and my job is to make sure that I’m the voice for every person in our district.”

Freshman Rep. Cindy Axne was caught off guard in September when she heard the House Democrats’ spending bill didn’t lift a cap on farm bailout payments, meaning the program would be stalled and many farmers wouldn’t get the aid they needed.

“You really want to know my reaction? I don’t know if you’ll be able to write that,” the Iowa Democrat joked before striking a more serious tone. “I literally said, ‘You’ve got to be blanking kidding me — that’s not going to happen.’”

Iowa farmers are suffering at the hands of President Donald Trump’s trade dispute with China, according to Axne. “We’ve lost 25 percent of our soybean market, our corn prices are at an all-time low, every factor of agriculture upstream and downstream has been impacted by this,” she said. In 2018, the White House rolled out a trade aid package to compensate farmers hurt by the trade war. Direct payments are likely to exceed $30 billion this year, nearly twice the cost of the 2009 auto-industry bailout.

Costs aside, it wasn’t that top Democrats simply didn’t want to fund the farmers who have taken a considerable financial hit as Trump’s trade war has dragged on. Instead, the money was taken out to have a “robust debate” on getting rid of the Trump tariffs that were punishing farmers in the first place, said a spokesperson for the top member on the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.). 

It’s not considered good form to go against your party’s budget plan, especially in a polarized Congress where just a handful of rogue actors can shut down the government, but Axne said she knew immediately that she needed to prevent Congress from using farmers as “political pawns,” even if it meant risking a government shutdown.

“I’m doing exactly what I said I would do; I [said] I would stand up and fight and use my sharp elbows to get what Iowans need,” she said.

 So Axne informed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that she could not support a spending bill that did not include tariff aid for farmers and that she would be rallying her fellow Midwestern colleagues to do the same.

“There was no question that I wasn’t going to vote for it,” Axne said. “And that I was going to do everything I could to make sure that it was in the package.”

Over the following days, she made her case to Pelosi and the Democrats. 

“I really had to explain to leadership and to the Democratic caucus the value that the Heartland brings to this country … We literally are the food and fuel providers, which means we bring national security to this country, and folks are forgetting that.”

Right now, Axne said, states that rely on agricultural exports need all the help they can get. Trade aid isn’t something she wants, but believes it’s necessary under current circumstances. “This country has provided aid to multiple industries when they believe that it impacts our country’s economic prosperity, and this is an industry that does,” Axne said.

“And when our president has created and inflicted this pain on our farmers, we absolutely need to support them because it’s not just in their best interest, it’s in the best interest of our country’s economy and our national security.”

Axne also pushed back against criticisms that tariff aid only benefits big Ag companies. It might be that a couple wealthy farmers receive the aid, she said, but mostly it’s “a lot of small farmers who’ve had to pool their resources together, maybe as a large family farm so they could create economies of scale.”

As her push to protect farmers rippled through the caucus, other representatives began speaking out. Among them were fellow Iowan Rep. Abby Lea Finkenauer, Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota, and Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois. Most Republicans backed her position, too, widening the rift over the budget bill.

In the midst of this, Axne said she bumped into Pelosi at the airport. “The first thing she said was ‘I heard, I know where you’re at with this. I know what we need to do,” Axne recalled.

A senior Democratic aide said Pelosi was working to address concerns from some in the caucus who objected to the lack of transparency and accountability provisions attached to the tariff aid.

Less than a week later, the spending bill included the farmer aid once again, plus a new requirement for USDA to report more details about where the money is going. It passed the House by a vote of 301 – 123. Congress still needs to pass another spending bill by Nov. 21 to keep the government running.

Looking ahead, Axne said trade aid won’t be used as a bargaining chip anytime soon. 

“The message is very clear. I’m not expecting any more conflict,” Axne said. “I hope that we don’t have to continually provide aid, but if that’s the case, then that’s what we’re going to have to do.”.

Today, she’s focused on other solutions for farmers, namely putting pressure on Congress and the White House to finalize new trade pacts, fighting the Trump administration’s use of ethanol waivers, and keeping Iowa on the map.

“You know, we’re called a flyover state, but we’re incredibly important to this country— and my job is to make sure that I’m the voice for every person in our district.”