Friday, December 27, 2013

Social Security to tighten leash on disability judges, as their generosity threatens to sink program

Following scandals and highly questionable activity in its disability program, including some widely publicized cases in Central Appalachia and Puerto Rico, the Social Security Administration will give itself "more latitude to crack down on judges who are awarding disability benefits outside the norm," Damian Paletta reports for The Wall Street Journal. The problem may be more prevalent in rural areas; the rural disability-benefits rate is 80 percent higher than the national rate.

The rules governing the judges are being rewritten so that they will no longer have "complete individual independence," and will clarify that they are "subject to the supervision and management" of other officials in the agency, Paletta reports. "In 2011, The Wall Street Journal reported a widespread disparity in the probability that certain judges would award benefits" to people who appealed initial denials, with many awarding benefits to 90 percent of claimants and others denying more than 80 percent of their cases. The tried to crack down on such "outliers," but said the "judicial independence" rule kept it from intervening, "even if a judge paid benefits in more than 95 percent of the cases."

Paletta notes, "The Social Security Disability Insurance program, funded by payroll taxes, pays monthly benefits—often until someone receives retirement benefits in their 60s—for people who can no longer work because of physical or mental health problems. During the recent economic downturn, the program grew quickly and now has close to 11 million beneficiaries. It has grown so fast, in fact, that it is projected to exhaust the reserves in its trust fund by 2016, which could force all beneficiaries to see an immediate cut in their payments."
Can you believe they misspelled "calendar"?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Most counties served by U.S. insurance exchange, many of them rural, lack affordable plan for 40-year-olds who just miss qualifying for subsidies

"More than half of the counties in 34 states using the federal health-insurance exchange lack even a bronze plan that's affordable — by the government's own definition — for 40-year-old couples who make just a little too much for financial assistance," report Jayne O'Donnell and Paul Overberg of USA Today. "Many of these counties are in rural, less populous areas that already had limited choice and pricey plans . . . More than a third don't offer an affordable plan in the four tiers of coverage known as bronze, silver, gold or platinum for people buying individual plans who are 50 or older and ineligible for subsidies."

The newspaper said it "looked at whether premiums for the least expensive plan in any of the metal levels was more than 8 percent of household income. That's similar to the affordability test used by the federal government to determine whether premiums are so expensive consumers aren't required to buy plans under the Affordable Care Act. The number of people who earn close to the subsidy cutoff and are priced out of affordable coverage may be a small slice of the estimated 4.4 million people buying their own insurance and ineligible for subsidies. But the analysis clearly shows how the sticker shock hitting many in the middle class, including the self-employed and early retirees, isn't just a perception problem. The lack of counties with affordable plans means many middle-class people will either opt out of insurance or pay too much to buy it." (Read more)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Pipeline plan hits snag in Ky., concerned about karst-topography safety and use of eminent domain

The oil and gas boom has also cause a boom in pipeline construction, as sources and markets shift and sometimes trade places. Many Kentucky residents are refusing big money to lease right-of-way to the proposed Bluegrass Pipeline, which would repurpose a gas line from Louisiana and extend it with legs to Pennsylvania and West Virginia to carry up to 16.8 million gallons of natural-gas liquids per day to Louisiana refineries. They are also fighting tooth and nail to keep the developers from invoking eminent domain to use their land, Natasha Khan reports for Public Source, a nonprofit, investigative news service based in Pennsylvania. (Williams Companies map: Proposed Bluegrass Pipeline)
"Pipeline officials assure Kentuckians the Bluegrass Pipeline will be constructed and maintained safely. It will bring jobs to the region, add millions in local tax revenues and contribute to America’s energy independence, they said," Khan writes. Chuck Taylor, a hydrogeologist with the Kentucky Geological Survey, echoed those words, saying "if the developers design the proper safeguards, the pipeline can be built and maintained safely."

The story did not explore how much that would cost and what the companies’ plans are in that regard, but said "A pipeline of this size is complicated, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts, a pipeline consulting firm." Plus, the route runs through karst topography, which is prone to formation of caves, sinkholes and underground channels. Ralph Ewers, a Kentucky hydrogeologist who specializes in karst issues, said "Because the rock is porous, karst can affect the stability of the pipeline. If a leak occurs in the porous rock, there’s the possibility of groundwater contamination because of the vast underground streams in Kentucky karst." Kuprewicz told Khan, “You’ve got to be nuts to put a large diameter HVL in a karst terrain. You can have the best, strongest pipe in the world, but you put it in a bad route, it could snap the pipeline.”

Despite the opposition, pipeline developers have "signed more than 50 percent of the easements needed in Kentucky as of early December and are more than 40 percent complete along the entire route," according to Scott Carney, a spokesman for the Bluegrass Pipeline. (Read more) The company claims it can condemn land to gain access to the route it wants, but many Kentucky officials disagree; for a story on that, from Marcus Green of WDRB-TV in Louisville, click here.

5 years after TVA disaster, still no new coal-ash rules; EPA has until Sunday to fix a schedule

UPDATE, Jan. 2: As EPA, industry representatives and environmental groups negotiated a settlement, a federal judge extended the deadline to Jan. 29.

The Environmental Protection Agency, not known for making quick decisions, is on the clock, having until Sunday to come up with a deadline for new rules on disposal of coal ash from power plants. The deadline comes less than a week after the fifth anniversary of the Tennessee Valley Authority coal-ash disaster in Kingston and Harriman, Tenn., that "destroyed three homes, damaged dozens of others, and poured into two tributaries of the Tennessee River," requiring "a $1 billion cleanup, with $200 million more to go," James Bruggers reports for the The Courier-Journal of Louisville. That bill will cost the 9 million residents of the TVA service area, which includes Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, 69 cents per month per person through 2024, Bruggers reports.

Even after the worst coal-ash disaster on record, EPA has done little to change its rules, Bruggers writes. "After the Kingston disaster, newly appointed EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who has since left her post, promised the nation’s first federal regulations to ensure environmentally safe and structurally sound coal-burning waste storage. But, so far, the EPA has failed to enact a single regulation — even as the agency has documented an increasing number of ash sites that have polluted the environment." The number of sites where groundwater or surface water has been contaminated by coal ash has grown from 50 in 2000 to more than 130 today, according to EPA.

EPA rules would put into place a consistent set of rules to replace inconsistent ones, Bruggers writes. "What has been in place to regulate coal-ash ponds is a hodgepodge of state regulations. Some are more protective than others, but often they fail to require even basic protections such as ash-pond liners to protect groundwater. And without federal rules, utilities were under no obligation to follow the EPA’s safety inspection recommendations."

Most of the worst states are in the South. Texas ranked first in most coal-burning waste in 2012, followed by Kentucky. Earthjustice, a not-for-profit law firm based in San Francisco, issued a report called State of Failure, saying: "Only three states require composite liners for all new coal ash ponds; only five states require composite liners for all new coal-ash landfills; only two states require groundwater monitoring of all coal-ash ponds; only four states require groundwater monitoring of all coal ash landfills; only six states prohibit siting of coal-ash ponds into the water table; and only 17 states require regulatory inspections of the structural integrity of coal-ash ponds."

The report singled out 12 states as posing the most risk, because they produce 50 percent of the annual coal ash, 70.6 millions tons of a year at 217 coal-fired plants, and dispose of their waste in 350 coal ash ponds. The report picked Alabama as the worst state, followed by Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. (Read more)

"The EPA proposed two possible rules in 2010, one that would treat the waste as hazardous, and another that would consider it solid waste, with less stringent requirements," Bruggers writes. But still, three years later, no rules are in place. Lisa Evans, a Boston attorney with Earthjustice, told Bruggers, “Kingston was a watershed event that should have brought quick federal controls on the disposal of this waste. Instead, it brought on widespread paralysis at the EPA and within the administration. It’s as if Hurricane Katrina happened, and they didn’t fix the levees.” (Read more)

Invasive carp could swim with barges through Chicago canal into Great Lakes, research shows

The plan to keep invasive Asian carp out of Lake Michigan may have a major hole in it. Researchers have found that fish can get  through "the electric barrier on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal that is considered the last line of defense to stop an Asian carp invasion," Dan Egan reports for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A report "by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveals that fish can be transported across the electrified swath of canal when they get trapped in the wake of a barge." Officials say there is no evidence that Asian carp have broken the barrier, or are near it, but scientists have said that if they get into the Great Lakes, they could severely damage the region's $7 billion annual fishing industry. (Journal photo: the barrier is located near the arch)

Cameras found that "entire schools of fish, not believed to be Asian carp, were recorded swimming through the barrier 61 percent of the time" when a barge came through, Egan writes. The report states: "Initial findings indicate that vessel-induced residual flows can trap fish and transport them beyond the electrical barriers, and that certain barge configurations may impact barrier electric field strength. Additionally, the preliminary (sonar camera) findings identified the potential for small fish (between 2-4 inches in length) to pass the barrier array in large groups, or schools." Still, researchers say it's not yet time to panic: "The closest adult Asian carp found in the Illinois River are about 55 miles from Lake Michigan, and no small Asian carp have been observed closer than 131 miles from Lake Michigan."

Despite those claims, "Water samples taken at the barrier site and in stretches of canal on the Lake Michigan side of the barrier have regularly tested positive for Asian carp DNA during the past four years," Egan writes. "Advocates want the canal physically plugged to stop Asian carp and other unwanted species from swimming freely between the Great Lakes and Mississippi basin." (Read more)

High deductibles and little free time mean Wisconsin dairy farmers rely on home visits for health care

Federal health reform was designed to make sure every American has a chance to get affordable health insurance. But for some farmers with high deductibles, and with much work to be done around the farm, the long trip to the doctor seems like a waste of time and money. That's why some farmers in Wisconsin are bypassing doctor visits and opting to stick with the Rural Health Initiative, which "sends a nurse to farms to check farmers’ blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels and screen them for health risks," The Associated Press reports. "Farmers with signs of serious problems are referred to a doctor or clinic." (AP photo by M.L. Johnson: Nurse Dawn Dingeldein checks the blood pressure of dairy farmer Jay Vomastic)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 36 percent of U.S. dairy farmers lacked health insurance in 2011, compared to 9 percent of all farmers, the AP writes. Wisconsin dairy farmer Jay Vomastic told the AP, “I would say most farmers, in general, if it’s not a lost limb or something crushed, they’re probably not going to go to the doctor. If you’ve got a virus, it’s going to wear off.”

Most dairy farms in Shawano County, in the central part of the state, "are generations-old and small enough to be run by a family, perhaps with one or two workers," AP reports. "Farmers can easily spend eight hours or more on their feet, but increased mechanization has made them less active than previous generations. Add to that a diet traditionally heavy in milk, cheese and beef, which presents cholesterol and other risks. The initiative started in 2004 after health care workers and residents realized many farmers received no medical care until they turned up in emergency rooms. The tight-knit community, where farmers are active in schools, local government and state politics, formed a focus group."

That led a group of farmers' wives to start the initiative. Rhonda Strebel, the nurse who launched the program and now serves as its executive director, told the AP, “The vet comes to the farm. The milk man picks up delivery at the farm. The feed comes to the farm. Why should we make them change that?” (Read more)

Oregon rural lawmakers push for small rural businesses to get same tax treatment as Nike

Gov. John Kitzhaber
Oregon lawmakers are pushing for a measure that would give small rural businesses similar tax structures to the ones afforded state power Nike, Lauren Dake reports for The Bulletin in Bend. Last year Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber "called lawmakers back to the Capitol for a one-day special session to approve a deal assuring Nike its corporate income-tax structure won’t change for 30 years." The law cements a key element in the tax code, the "single sales factor," which affects companies that have large amounts of sales outside the state. "As long as Nike creates 500 new jobs and invests $150 million in the state, its corporate taxes will continue to be based only on sales that happen within Oregon for the next three decades." Intel recently got a similar deal.

Rural lawmakers want small businesses in their regions to get the same treatment, Dake writes. Rep. Greg Smith (R-Heppner) told Dake, "One or two districts in the state of Oregon got special consideration while other parts of the state that could have benefited from like legislation were excluded. You still have legislators saying, ‘why not us? why not our small businesses?’”

Rep. Mike McLane (R-Powell Butte), told Dake, “The plight of rural Oregon has not gone unnoticed … and while we have momentum and interest from those in the Portland businesses (groups) we need to strike." McLane explained how he felt the move could be changed to fit small rural businesses: “Instead of $150 million and 500 jobs, how about $5 million and 50 jobs. We would scale it back but still create incentives for people to locate and expand.” (Read more)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Interactive tools provide updated census data for counties and states

The Census Bureau on Friday updated its QuickFacts tool with the latest results of the American Community Survey data from 2008-2012. The tool allows users to click on any state, county, or city, and get statistics on population, education, housing, veterans, income, farming, geography, and other areas of interest.

Another new option is the Census Explorer, which has state and county data on total population; percent of population 65 and older; foreign-born population percentage; percent of the population with a high school degree or higher; percent with a bachelor’s degree or higher; labor force participation rate; home ownership rate; and median household income

The agency's website also has an interactive map that provides state and county numbers on business patterns, industries, population, race, ethnicity, age/sex, and housing status. There is also a population finder that has a 2010 demographic profile of every state and county. (Census Bureau graphic: Census Explorer statistics on high school graduation rates by state.)

Amish selling land rights to oil and natural gas companies, then relocating with cash and tax break

In the oil and gas boom, many landowners have been cashing on selling drilling rights, and the Amish are no exception, even if that is disruptive, Ernest Scheyder reports for Reuters. Some Amish "are sitting on prime drilling land in eastern Ohio, but many say the rapid development is encroaching on their pastoral way of life. Already this year, several oil trucks have been involved in fatal collisions with Amish horse-drawn buggies in the region's narrow and winding roads. So, many Amish are cashing out to escape the noise as their bucolic landscape of lush green hills becomes dotted with oil storage tanks." (Scheyder photo: A Flatiron executive talks with Amish members in Deersville, Ohio)

Residents like Eli Byler are being paid large sums to sell their rights, allowing them to hit the road, Scheyder writes. Flatiron Energy Partners "is paying Byler $221,195 cash, an amount that will be tax-free thanks to an arcane part of the U.S. tax code, if Byler follows through on plans to relocate his family to Pennsylvania." One of the benefits is Section 1031 of code, which says "landowners can use cash they receive for selling their oil and natural gas minerals to buy another piece of property, tax free." The section counts mineral rights as property. Since the beginning of 2013, the number of companies buying Ohio royalty interests has risen from two to 10.

"Byler's deal is part of a larger wave of companies like Flatiron paying cash up front for oil and natural gas royalty interests, deals these companies hope will provide their clients - typically family trusts and other wealth funds - guaranteed income for decades in the form of royalty checks," Scheyder writes. "At least 35 other Amish families plan to sell their royalty rights and make an exodus from the Buckeye State to parts of Pennsylvania or New York state with little or no energy development, said Byler, who plans to sell the full 53.3 acres he owns on the surface, including his homestead, in a separate deal." (Read more)

Demand for corn threatening milkweed, and thus the monarch butterfly, which lives off the plant

Scientists and conservationists in the Great Plains are leading a crusade to save milkweed, and in turn, the monarch butterfly, which lives solely on the plant, Michael Wines reports for The New York Times. While there are many theories for the demise of the two, the main concern is that a rising demand for corn is destroying the land where milkweed thrives. (Pentagraph photo by Steve Smedley: Monarch feeds on milkweed)

In the summer of 2010, the University of Northern Iowa counted 176 monarchs in its 100 acres of prairie grass and flowers, but this year, counted only 11, Wines writes: "The decline has no single cause. Drought and bad weather have decimated the monarch during some recent migrations. Illegal logging of its winter home in Mexico has been a constant threat. Some studies conclude that pesticides and fungicides contribute not just to the monarchs’ woes, but to population declines among bees, other butterflies and pollinators in general."

The greatest threat, though, "is its dwindling habitat in the Midwest and the Great Plains, the vast expanse over which monarchs fly, breed new generations and die during migrations every spring and autumn," Wines writes. And this is due in large part to a rising demand in corn. "Since 2007, farmers nationwide have taken more than 17,500 square miles of land out of federal conservation reserves," a federal program that pays growers to leave land fallow for wildlife and soil conservation. "Iowa has lost a quarter of its reserve land; Kansas, nearly 30 percent; South Dakota, half."

"A study published in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed land use in five states — Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas and Nebraska — in the broad arc of farmland where corn and soybeans are intensively planted," Wines writes. "Over the five years from 2006 to 2011, the study concluded, 5 percent to 30 percent of the grasslands were converted to corn and soybean fields, a rate it said was 'comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia.'”

Some groups are pushing for federal legislation to save monarch habitats, Wines writes. Others want to education or encourage businesses to work safely around the butterflies, or provide habitats for them. But Laura Jackson, a University of Northern Iowa biologist and director of its Tallgrass Prairie Center, worries that people will forget about the butterflies. She told Wines, “Monarchs are just like other iconic species. Once people stop being accustomed to seeing them, they stop caring and they forget. Support drops like a ratchet.” (Read more)

FDA to re-write food safety rules to appease farmers, who say the new laws are too costly

Nearly a year after the federal government proposed new food safety rules that would put more responsibility on farmers to prevent food-borne illnesses before they begin, the Food and Drug Administration said it will revise the rules "after farmers complained the rules could hurt business," costing large farms as much as $30,000 a year, Mary Clare Jalonick reports for The Associated Press. "Many of the concerns the FDA heard from farmers were about new regulations for testing irrigation water."

"The rules proposed in January would require farmers to take new precautions against contamination, making sure workers’ hands are washed, irrigation water is clean and that animals stay out of fields, among other precautions," Jalonick writes. "Food manufacturers would also have to submit food safety plans to the government to show they are keeping their operations clean." Farmers complained that they would need to purchase new equipment, and would be responsible for more paperwork and record keeping.

FDA Commisssioner Michael Taylor said in a blog post on the agency's website: "Because of the input we received from farmers and the concerns they expressed about the impact of these rules on their lives and livelihood, we realized that significant changes must be made, while ensuring that the proposed rules remain consistent with our food safety goals."

Supporters of the proposed changes "have said the new laws are needed after several high-profile, foodborne illness outbreaks in peanuts, spinach, eggs, cantaloupe and other foods," Jalonick writes. "While many farmers and food manufacturers already follow good food safety practices, the law would aim to ensure that all of them do. There are an estimated 3,000 deaths a year from foodborne illness." (Read more)

Small-town daily cashing in on book detailing bizarre and mundane calls from police blotter

In an era where many newspapers are struggling to stay afloat, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle has found a way to bring in some extra cash, while providing a few chuckles. The Montana paper has turned some of the silly and ridiculous calls to the local police into a book that has caught fire, having sold 11,000 copies in three printings, while bringing in more than $100,000 to the newspaper through the first two printings, Carolina Porter reports for The Wall Street Journal.

We Don't Make This Stuff Up: The Very Best of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle Police Reports was mostly compiled by crime reporter Whitney Bermes, whose job is to take the roughly 200 daily police reports and find 20 for the paper, Porter writes. Bermes told Porter, "The title of this book is spot on. I couldn't make this stuff up if I wanted to. I wish I was half as creative as the people who call the police on a daily basis."

Some examples: "A man reported that someone got into his unlocked car and turned the lights on, draining the battery; a woman had questions about a man who wanted to trade a gun for a puppy; a caller wanted to know how to get his mother to stop harassing him."

But it's more than a gimmick. The town has been thriving on the police calls. The Chronicle started a Facebook page, where people can post and discuss police reports, as well as purchasing T-shirts, Porter writes. Local businesses have also benefited from the book. Ryan Cassavaugh, owner of Cactus Records, bough 144 copies to sell for Christmas, while Country Bookshelf owner Ariana Paliobagis said she sells 1,000 copies a month. (Read more)

Organizations use Promise Neighborhood grants to improve education in distressed communities

Berea College, the Delta Health Alliance, and Renewal Unlimited Inc. have been awarded Promise Neighborhood grants, which go "to colleges, universities, or non-profits that serve as lead agencies in partnership with school districts and other community-based organizations in distressed communities," reports Rural Policy Matters, a publication of the Rural School and Community Trust.

For the past 15 years Berea College, just outside the East Kentucky Coalfield, "has implemented federal pre-K–12 education grants in the region" through Berea Promise Neighborhood, RPM reports. "Berea has expanded its college and career-readiness programs and built on its family engagement experience as the basis for expanded academic work with schools. It has formalized partnerships, set up its data system, built out its work into elementary schools and implemented early childhood partnerships, and piloted a variety of programs, in health, wellness, safety, and arts and culture." (Berea College map: Promise Neighborhood serves nine counties and 10 school districts in Eastern Kentucky)

The program was designed "to increase academic performance and college readiness;
to increase high school graduation rates and college-going rates; and to build and enrich a college-going culture in the schools and communities we serve," according to the college. Last month Berea hosted the Rural Education Summit, which "addressed issues surrounding rural poverty and the need for rural-centric responses" and "offered tours to sites in rural Kentucky to see the Berea Promise Neighborhood in action," Rural Policy Matters reports.

Delta Health Alliance, based in Indianola, Miss. left, "has extensive experience providing health interventions and education in the Mississippi Delta," Rural Policy Matters reports. Vice President for External Affairs John Davis told RPM, “Delta Health Alliance has a strong track record reducing infant mortality and low birth weight with health care, home visitations, and other work with expectant and new mothers. It starts with getting them here healthy.”

The alliance also "expanded pre-birth through five supports and led efforts to have Indianola certified as an Excel by 5 community—meaning it has achieved standards and provides supports to reach the goal that all children are ready to learn in school at age five," RPM reports. "It also formalized partnerships  and began working directly with the Indianola school district and other partners to establish and expand after school programs."

Renewal Unlimited Inc. has pre-school programs, family resource centers and other family and education programs in a five-county region of central Wisconsin including Adams County (Wikipedia map), which, "with a population of about 20,000, retains an agricultural economic base, supplemented with light manufacturing," Rural Policy Matters reports. To read the entire article in RPM's December issue, click here.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Growers of grain sorghum and some other specialty crops wonder about impact of new Farm Bill

There are still some uncertainties about the new Farm Bill that Congress is expected to pass when it returns to business next month, but there is one certainty above all others: It will eliminate direct payments to farmers and make subsidized crop insurance their main safety net. But there is great uncertainty about how that will affect grain sorghum, "the red-headed step child at the end of the farm bill table — all grown up and well, almost cool — and other specialty crops, reports David Rogers of Politico. (Photo of Texas sorghum by The Associated Press)

Sorghum, also called milo, is "as old as ancient Egypt, as modern as gluten-free diets," Rogers notes. "It will never be as pretty as corn, but pheasants on the Great Plains love it for habitat. And in an age of climate change, it’s the grain that endures through drought and heat." So its future seems bright, but Rogers says the crop is "a window into the survival politics of small crops trying to hold on amid the dominance of corn" in American agriculture and farm policy.

"Target prices set in the House farm bill give sorghum a 25 cents-per-bushel differential over corn," expansion of which in the last decade has reduced sorghum plantings, Rogers writes. "But with cotton transitioning out of the commodity title and into a new revenue insurance program, sorghum worries about its future as a rotation crop in the South. And to hear growers tell it, the very scrappy nature of the plant works against it in terms of generating good yield numbers for its own crop insurance protection. Precious water resources like the Ogallala aquifer beneath the Great Plains would almost certainly be better protected with more sorghum and less irrigated corn. But those environmental concerns don’t add points for the bookkeepers at the Risk Management Agency, which oversees the federally subsidized crop insurance program."

“We pay a price for being a tough guy,” Tim Lust, chief executive officer of the National Sorghum Producers in Lubbock, Texas, told Rogers. “It’s an industry, and if you lose too many acres, you lose the capital investment that goes with that.”

Rogers suggests that producers of sorghum, barley lentils and other small grains need a lobbying alliance with those who raise fruits, vegetables, nuts and nursery stock. "Each camp still looks down its nose at the other," he writes. "But with the rise of the organic movement and greater emphasis on locally grown produce, specialty crops are an important political asset in competing for votes in a House with fewer and fewer rural districts." (Read more)