A handful of lawmakers would benefit personally from a measure they helped push through the House to pay tobacco farmers almost $10 billion to give up a Depression-era federal program to bolster prices.
Rep. Bill Jenkins (R-Tenn.) would get an estimated $39,600 under the buyout, and his wife, Kathryn, an additional $14,500, according to government data compiled by the Environmental Working Group, which advocates change in federal farm policy.
Jenkins chairs the House subcommittee that deals with tobacco farming and helped draft the $9.6 billion farmer buyout that was approved by the House last month as part of a broad corporate tax bill.
The proposal would pay farmers to exit the federal system that sets price and production controls on U.S. leaf. Farmers would have to give up their tobacco allotments, which limit how much they can sell each year.
Rep. Bobby R. Etheridge (D-N.C.) also pushed to get the buyout included in the tax bill. He would get about $30,900 under the buyout, according to the data.
"I grew up on a farm, growing tobacco," Etheridge said. "It's sort of like a part of our heritage." He added that he saw no reason he should have divested himself of his tobacco interest.
Responding to an inquiry from Jenkins last year, House ethics officials said he did not have to abstain from voting on or sponsoring legislation dealing with tobacco just because he owned a government quota.
A lawmaker would have to abstain from legislating only on a matter that "would impact the member in a direct and distinct manner rather than merely as a member of a class," according to a letter Jenkins received from ethics officials.
Nonetheless, there is the appearance of a conflict of interest, said Larry Noble, head of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Noble said the problem with lawmakers' sponsoring or supporting "a bill that will enrich them or their family is that it's really impossible to tell whether they're doing it for self-interest or for their constituents."
Ken Cook, president of Environmental Working Group, said lawmakers should have announced how much money they would receive under the buyout plan when the House took up the proposal.
Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), another supporter of the buyout, owns with his brother a farm on which tobacco is grown. A spokesman for Davis said only the congressman's brother, Ceifer Davis, would get money from a buyout. The Environmental Working Group estimates the brother would get $29,700.
Rep. Edward Whitfield (R-Ky.) said his mother owns a small amount of tobacco quota. She would get less than $1,000, according to the Environmental Working Group's database, based on Agriculture Department figures.
Rep. A.B. "Ben" Chandler (D-Ky.) also disclosed through a spokesman that some of his relatives would benefit, although he did not say who they were or how much they would gain.
Some of the lawmakers' tobacco holdings were first reported onThursday by the National Journal, a politics and government weekly.
The Senate also has passed a corporate tax bill, but without a tobacco buyout. Lawmakers hope to merge the two bills when they return in September from a five-week recess.