Farm Bill Ignites Heavy Lobbying

The Senate launched its much-awaited debate on a rewrite of the 2008 farm bill. The expectations are high for not just a partisan divide among senators, but also a regional and philosophical divide–made ever more complicated by the pressures imposed by lobbyists.  Groups ranging from sugar beet farmers to corn growers, biomass companies to faith-based organizations, and food banks to food manufacturers have a stake in the outcome of this bill.

While current lobbying data on the specific bill authored by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, and ranking Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas is not yet available (it was formally filed in May), organizations have been gearing up for more than a year as the 2008 law has been set to expire at the end of September 2012. Lobbying groups -were spurred by debates in the fall of 2011 by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction which, generated concerns about a new farm bill constrained by budget deficits.

From the beginning of 2011 through the first quarter of 2012, according to the First Street database, 1,063 organizations reported to be lobbying on any of 23 measures that had been filed related to the farm bill. That number of lobbyists can be expected to be higher once second quarter reports are filed. During the 110th Congress (2007-2008), nearly 1,200 groups reported lobbying on 34 various measures related to the 2008 farm bill reauthorization.

History of Lobbying Farm Bill

Reauthorization of  the farm bill always invites the attention of hundreds of lobbyists who vie for the varied interests of their clients, causing consternation among lawmakers trying to balance the desires of their constituents with political pressures to keep a watch on spending — especially this election year.

Farm legislation was initially adopted in 1933. Those affected by the measure have grown as programs have been added.  A section on conservation was added in 1985, bioenergy was added in 2002, and horticulture and livestock provisions were added in 2008, according to the Congressional Research Service.

During the 107th Congress, lawmakers passed the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. More than 456 organizations lobbied on agriculture issues — which would primarily encompass farm bill programs — in 2001, and that number increased to 652 in 2002, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The number of lobbying organizations spiked in 2007 and in 2008, when the Food, Conservation and Energy Act was passed over a presidential veto. During that session, 1,197 organizations specifically reported lobbying on legislation related to the “Food, Conservation and Energy Act,” or “Farm Security and Rural Investment Act” or the more generically termed “farm bill.”

Current Debate

This year’s debate is made even more divisive because of budget deficits as well as pay-as-you-go rules adopted in 2010. The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act, approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee and now before the Senate, is estimated to cost $969 billion over ten years and includes a cut of only $23.6 billion from current spending on farm and nutrition spending, primarily by eliminating direct farm subsidies and creating a new crop insurance program. Supporters of the current subsidy program want a stronger safety net for farmers, but others say agriculture no longer need-the present level of support and point to other policy priorities.

The proposed new program, a so-called “shallow loss program,” has southern groups and senators unhappy because rice and peanut subsidies would be cut deeply. But others say the current system has disproportionally favored rice and peanut crops over such crops like wheat, corn and soy beans. USA Rice Federation, which spent more than a half million dollars in 2007 and near $800,000 in 2008, spent a reported $130,000 in the first quarter of 2012. The National Corn Growers Association spent a reported $140,000 in lobbying expenditures.

The American Farm Bureau Federation seeks an equitable distribution for all farmers. In a letter to the Senate recently, AFBF Bob Stallman said it would support the current Senate bill, but added that “it is our sincere hope there will be additional opportunities to make adjustments and refinements.” In the first quarter of 2012, the American Farm Bureau reported spending $640,000 in lobbying expenditures, up from the $520,000 it spent in the fourth quarter of 2011. Another major player is the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, which reported just over $248,000 in the first quarter of 2012. In the last quarter of 2011, it spent nearly $238,000.

Large companies like Kraft Foods can be expected to increase their lobbying efforts. Kraft Foods Global Inc. reported $670,000 in lobbying expenditures in the first quarter of this year; and in 2008, it reported nearly $3.7 million in lobbying expenses and $2.3 million in 2007. The Food Marketing Institute, which spent nearly $1.6 million in lobbying expenditures in 2007 — including on farm bill reauthorization — reported spending nearly $300,000 in the last quarter of 2011 and $200,000 in the first quarter of this year.

The American Sugar Alliance already reported $400,000 in lobbying expenditures in 2012; it hopes to fight back efforts from some food manufacturers to lower the price sugar farmers get for their crops. Members of the Sugar Alliance, as well as many foreign sugar producers, praised the Senate Agriculture Committee for the farm bill’s sugar policy that “provides a guaranteed level of access to the U.S. sugar market at fair, predictable prices,” they said, and warned against any attempt to weaken the policy on the floor.

The National Confectioners Association argues that the current program actually restricts sugar imports into the U.S. and drives up costs for bakers and manufacturers. That association, formed just a year ago, spent nearly $262,000 last year on lobbying and reported $100,000 in the first quarter this year.

The so-called “anti-obesity” lobby is keeping a close eye on the measure. The food blog Civil Eats says if the bill passes in its current form, it will “largely perpetuate our broken food and agriculture system.  It will, leave in its wake a long legacy of poor health and degraded soil, water and habitat, especially in the industrial agriculture heartland.”

Ann Goodman, president and CEO of the Cleveland Food Bank, urged members of the Senate Agriculture Committee last month to protect food and nutrition programs and seek more ways to help low-income families and farmers. Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop oppose- cuts to food stamp and nutrition programs or – to farm subsidies, -but advocates for full funding of conservation programs.

Meanwhile, ethanol companies and gasoline station owners are pushing to expand a program that helps pay for infrastructure to help dispense gas with higher concentration of ethanol. The Renewable Fuels Association reported nearly $256,000 on lobbying in the first quarter of this year, including on the farm bill. The Advanced Ethanol Council advocated for extensions of ethanol tax breaks (now expired) and a reform of the biomass crop assistance program-

Senate leaders suggest debate on the floor could take the entire month. Debate in the House is expected to be more difficult, as it is taking a different approach and seeking further cuts.

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