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Protecting our rural way of life

Washington, February 11, 2012
Growing up on a family ranch in the Texas Panhandle meant that my brothers and I were expected to help out as best we could. Our father and grandfather worked long hours six days a week, yet there was never enough time to get everything done. From the time we could sit on a horse, we had to pitch in.

We rode horseback to help move cattle. We helped work cattle—branding in the Spring, shipping calves in the Fall. We built and repaired fence. We put out feed. We hoed the weeds out of the cotton field, drove the tractor, and had chores we were responsible for at the house. Much of time, I was probably more trouble than help, but with more experience and maturity, I was able to do more. All of that taught me much more than just how to do the job at hand. In the process I learned something about the value of work.

Of course, the Thornberrys are not unique. Many young men and women growing up in rural America work on farms and ranches and other businesses run by family or by neighbors. They learn how to work, and perhaps gain some useful skills, while earning some money. The farm, ranch, or business gets the benefit of their efforts. But that mutual benefit for many is threatened by—you guessed it—the federal government.

The Department of Labor proposed new regulations last year for farms and other rural businesses that could, among other things, prevent a high school freshman from earning extra money on a farm or helping a neighbor work cattle. The Administration stated that the new proposals were issued to protect teenagers from potentially hazardous work on a farm or ranch. It’s true that one needs to be alert and cautious around livestock and machinery. But these regulations will do far more harm than good to rural America.

Among other things, the new rule would prohibit those under age 18 from working at certain businesses, such as grain elevators, feedlots, and livestock auctions. Those under age 16 could not operate power-driven equipment. There is a limited exemption for working on a parent’s farm or ranch, but not for grandparents, uncles, neighbors, or others.

The result, of course, will be fewer opportunities for young people, less help for agricultural producers and businesses, and damage to our rural economy. Its consequences will be more than economic, they will be cultural as well. I frequently hear from businesses that move to our area how impressed they are by the work ethic of our people. Fewer opportunities to work mean fewer kids learn how to work.

Of course, I have written to the Department of Labor opposing the regulations. I have cosponsored legislation to stop them. And I will work to prevent any federal funds from being used to enforce them. There are signs recently that the Department of Labor may reconsider some elements. Hopefully, one way or another, this rule will be reversed.

But this effort to extend the federal government’s control further into agriculture and rural America is yet another instance of government arrogance – the view that Washington bureaucrats know better than we do about how we should lead our lives. We have seen it in health care, in the work place – even with our shower heads and light bulbs.

It must be stopped. Or the America we have all been privileged to grow up in will be altered forever.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, represents the 13th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He serves as the Vice Chairman of the Armed Services Committee and as a senior member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

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