State and federal lawmakers sniffing out checkoff cronyism

By on July 14, 2017 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

To its credit, the California Senate Judiciary Committee stopped a bill to expand the state tax on cattle and dairy farmers to the tune of millions of dollars – a plan to put the funds into a “commission” that would be authorized to use the money for lobbying against animal welfare and family farmers. The bill was principally backed by the California Cattlemen’s Association, and the bill’s author withdrew the bill from the docket after he realized that The HSUS, legislators, and our farmer allies were poised to kill it

This outcome provides a boost to efforts at the federal level to crack down on checkoff abuses and cronyism. Two pairs of ideological opposites introduced bills in the U.S. House and Senate earlier this year -– Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Cory Booker, D-N.J., in the Senate, and Dave Brat, R-Va., and Dina Titus, D-Nev., in the House — to reform a series of federal government programs that have too often taken on the character of slush funds for the beef and pork industries. Their legislation, the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act, would prevent the U.S. Department of Agriculture and agribusiness trade groups – including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) – from diverting tens of millions of dollars a year to salaries, lobbying, and other inappropriate and impermissible activities through the national checkoff programs.

The state system is rigged in the same way as the federal system, and California’s A.B. 243 was designed to make a bad situation even worse. The California Cattlemen’s Association, for example, says on its website that it placed “a high priority on educating consumers to defend against environmental, animal welfare and nutritional attacks from anti-beef activists…” Many rank-and-file farmers don’t like their hard-earned money being diverted to salaries and lobbying when the purpose of the programs is commodity promotion. Even the Kern County Cattlemen’s Association, along with so many other rank-and-file farmers and farm groups, opposed A.B. 243.

Federal checkoff programs have been in place for decades, and they are part of the federal bureaucracy and government money train that makes average Americans wince. You’ve undoubtedly heard the slogans and seen the advertising that’s come from them, such as “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.” Congress originally intended to tax farmers and force them to pay into what are supposed to be non-political, federal programs to promote their commodities. As it has played out in the real world, however, the NCBA and other leading trade groups got access to the till and now they divert tens of millions annually to their own associations for advocacy or anti-competitive activities that put a special hurt on small farmers. This welcome legislation fits in with President Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” and stop waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government. He and other officials can look to none other than the Heritage Foundation, a preeminent conservative think tank, which has endorsed this legislation and is working actively to advance it.

Take the beef checkoff program. The NCBA, the industry’s biggest trade association, is the primary contractor for beef checkoff advertising efforts, despite the fact that the group claims membership of only 3.1 percent of America’s cattlemen. NCBA receives the majority of national checkoff fees, making up most of its total budget. That’s almost every beef checkoff dollar, paid by many of the smallest farmers, going to a lobbying group that typically works for the interests of the biggest producers and against the interests of independent cow-calf operators. In a recent year, an astonishing 82 percent of the budget of NCBA, according to one source, is covered by checkoff funds.

The pork checkoff is arguably just as bad. Years ago, the Pork Board developed its “Pork: The Other White Meat” campaign. Yet, despite the exclusive use of checkoff funds to develop and promote the slogan, the NPPC claimed title to the trademark free of charge. Then, after the trademark had nearly exhausted its market value, the Pork Board bought back (with checkoff dollars) its own unlawful “gift” from the NPPC – for $60 million! These federal funds are now being paid out every year in $3 million installments, and they make up a third of the NPPC’s annual budget. The HSUS, along with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and an individual pig farmer, have sued over this gross abuse of the checkoff program and the pending lawsuit threatens to eliminate NPPC’s use of the checkoff as an illegal slush fund. Remember, the NPPC is the trade association that defends keeping pigs in lifelong inhumane confinement in small cages, the overuse of antibiotics, and so many other retrograde policies.

“For too long, America’s family farmers have been forced to fund programs that undermine their efforts to preserve rural communities and to use traditional methods of farming,” Joe Maxwell, a Missouri hog farmer and executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, said. “Farmers should have guarantees these programs are working for them, and shouldn’t have their hard-earned money going toward a slush fund for big ag.”

“This federal legislation is a show of good faith to America’s farmers who believe in accountability and government transparency,” said Pete Eshelman of Joseph DeCuis Farm and the HSUS National Agriculture Advisory Council. “We deserve to know where our dollars are going. Thanks to Senators Booker and Lee and Representatives Brat and Titus for standing up for open government, free markets and fairness for all farmers.”

Agribusiness trade associations at the state and federal level are cooking up these plans, and rank-and-file farmers pay the bills and get almost nothing valuable in return. It’s one thing if the farmers want to voluntarily contribute to fund the NCBA and NPPC campaigns. But farmers shouldn’t be forced to pay, and state and federal lawmakers shouldn’t abet this privatizing of public dollars, especially for such destructive purposes.

Farm Animals, Public Policy (Legal/Legislative)

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