Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Young Democrats Luncheon, Bismarck, North Dakota, February 6, 1960

The Rural Electrification Administration

One program which has been constantly threatened and harassed by this Administration has been our vital program of rural electrification. There are those who would have you believe that the fight for rural electrification is over – that the battles of the Twenties and Thirties, led by George Norris and Bill Langer and others endowed with farsighted vision – have all been won – that this is a time to be contented with the progress that has been made, and – by implication – to treat the REA co-ops like any other successful utility.

But I cannot agree with these sentiments. These issues are not gone and the problems are not solved. It is true that most farms now have electric lights. It is a fact that REA cooperatives and power districts are well established, well accepted enterprises. There is no doubt that the dream first visualized by George Norris and Franklin Roosevelt has been fulfilled.

But today we are faced with new problems and new horizons never even foreseen by George Norris. For this Nation has now completed its age of consolidation – now the age of change and challenge is upon us. We are at the very edge of our greatest era of expansion, growth and abundance – at the edge of a new and better era for our Nation, our world and all mankind. The standards of the past will not do – the goals of the present are not enough – we must move ahead to seize the future and to make it ours.

We are approaching the time when this Nation will boast of a 200 million population, a $500 billion national income, and a trillion dollar economy – and grave responsibility as the food basket for a world whose population will double in 40 years.

The key to that future is power – power on the farm as well as the factory – power in the country as well as the city.

The history of the REA demonstrates that the farmer's consumption of power can double in as short a time as five years. Rural electrification in North Dakota, for example, is the product of less than 15 years of Federal power. Let no one doubt, then, that the role of REA is as vital now, and in the years to come, as it has ever been in the past quarter of a century.

For rural electrification cannot stand still in an age when it must either move ahead – or wither on the vine. But if it is to move ahead, REA rates must remain low – more generating capacity must be developed – the vast resources of nuclear energy must be tapped – high-grade lignite mines must be utilized – and the guiding spirit of George Norris must prevail. For it is an ironic fact – I say it is a tragic fact – that the kind of dynamic leadership and initiative REA needs in the Executive Branch is lacking today at the very time we need it most.

Instead of new help, we get new handicaps. Instead of more funds, we get more restrictions.

This Administration has been dedicated to a policy in REA of slow down, hold back and stretch out. It is not, as some would have you believe, a battle between the "spenders" and the "savers" – for REA is a form of saving – saving hours and lives on the farm – saving farms for our Nation's needs – and saving and returning to our Nation's government every dollar loaned with interest. In taxes on new appliances, new equipment and new farm income, the miracle of REA has returned to the public treasuries many times the entire cost of the program. So let no one tell you that REA should be cut back in any drive for economy. If we want to increase national income to balance the budget, then REA should be expanded, not restricted.

But there are no efforts to expand – there are no priorities for rural co-ops seeking additional power sources – there are no new loans for telephone co-ops. We are confronted, on the contrary, with an attempt to rewrite the past – to rewrite the history and intent of the REA bill – in order to deny co-ops the right to operate in areas which could potentially be served by a private power company – absolutely regardless, mind you, of how high those private power rates are, how poor its service may be, or even how unlikely its intentions really are of serving those customers.

We are confronted with a Secretary of Agriculture who urges the REA co-ops to go to banks for their long-term funds and an REA administrator openly advocating higher interest rates upon REA loans.

We are confronted, in addition, with a Federal Power Commission that does not believe in public power and does not understand the preference clause. We are confronted with a Secretary of Agriculture who insists on political clearance for REA loans. When we tried in Congress to clear this up by law, the President vetoed the bill on Mr. Benson's behalf. The Senate over-rode that veto. The House, unfortunately, could not.

We are confronted with a too timid, too little, too slow Administration power policy. Last year, Congress took the initiative by calling for a slack-water navigation study on the Missouri. It even authorized $300,000 for this purpose. As you know, slack-water navigation will harness the mighty Missouri to provide 600,000 kilowatts of sorely-needed power. At the same time, it will permit full navigation instead of half navigation on the river.

What was the Administration's answer? For this $300,000 study, this year's Budget Message requests $10,000. At this rate it will take 30 years just to make the study. Perhaps the Administration hopes the Missouri will run dry before the study can be completed.

But we in the Democratic Congress have succeeded in blocking Administration progress on its five requests to this Congress affecting the REA:

First, it wanted Congress to authorize less loan funds than are admittedly needed.

Second, it wanted electric co-ops to go to "private sources" for the rest of their money.

Third, it wanted Federal loans to come out of a so-called revolving fund – which, unfortunately, doesn't revolve and has no funds.

Fourth, it wanted to more than double the interest rate on REA loans;

and Fifth, and finally, it wanted to impose new taxes on co-ops – not REA co-ops yet, perhaps, but this could be the opening wedge.

That is the hard, unchangeable five-point program of this Administration for REA. There you have this Administration's blueprint for the future of the REA co-ops.

That is its answer to the challenge of the future.

There is no mention in the Administration program of new power sources like lignite to furnish the power the co-ops must have if they are to adequately serve their constantly growing needs. There is no acknowledgement of the 40% of our farm families without telephone service. There is no attempt to reach the remaining 300,000 farm and ranch families still without electricity.

No one has ever pretended that standard banking and utility practices could do this job. When Franklin Roosevelt and George Norris decided 25 years ago that the job must be done, they assigned it to the co-ops. We must not permit this decision to be reversed now, when we need REA more than ever before. And with your help, with the election of a Democratic Congress and a new Democratic President, REA can be preserved, it can be strengthened, and it can continue to serve America.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 906, "Young Democrats Luncheon, Bismarck, North Dakota, 6 February 1960." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.