The Washington Post

Why watchdog groups don’t like the new farm bill

Just a few days since Congress approved a $956.4 billion farm bill, watchdog groups are complaining that lawmakers didn't include language that would force the Agriculture Department to disclose whether lawmakers and senior government officials receive any payments from a new crop insurance program.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.), on Capitol Hill in December. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The crop insurance program was established to replace billions of dollars in direct subsidy payments to the nation’s farmers -- a significant reform heralded by President Obama and members of both parties. Under the new program, farmers will be able to voluntarily enroll and receive insurance payments after natural disasters or during a downturn.

Obama plans to sign the farm bill Friday in Michigan alongside Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who co-authored the bill.

Groups including Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Environmental Working Group were pushing Stabenow and her colleagues to include language requiring the USDA to disclose if lawmakers and Cabinet secretaries are collecting insurance payments. For years theses groups have filed public information requests and published data on the lawmakers that received direct subsidies.

In 2013, EWG found that 15 lawmakers or their spouses who own farms collected a total of $237,921 in subsidy payments -- barely noticeable amid the billions of dollars in payments, but still notable. The lawmakers (or their spouses) were Reps. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.), David Valadao (R-Calif.), Steve Fincher (R-Tenn.), Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), John Kline (R-Minn.), Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.), Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) and Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) and Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.). Lucas is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and the subsidies went to his wife's farm, according to EWG.

Of those 15, just two -- Grassley and Stutzman -- voted against the bill out of concern that it didn't cut spending aggressively enough.

The groups were hopeful last summer when a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Reps. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) successfully amended the House version of the farm bill with language requiring the disclosure of any insurance payments made to lawmakers and Cabinet secretaries.

But last week when a final version of the farm bill was released, the language wasn't there. (That's part of the reason why Foxx and Ellison voted against the bill.)

House and Senate aides familiar with the talks say there was never serious consideration given to including the language in the bill. Senate aides said that House negotiators led by Lucas never pushed to include the language, while a House aide familiar with the talks admitted that "with all the other things in the bill, this just wasn't a priority."

And that's somewhat understandable. The 959-page bill slashes about $16 billion in spending and helps support 16 million jobs in the agricultural sector. It's packed with complicated language that establishes the new crop insurance program, ends the direct subsidies, merges or ends dozens of USDA programs, cuts $8 billion in funding for food stamps, establishes a new wool trust fund, deals with emergency food supplies and addresses the details of farm-raised fish and industrial hemp.

But why isn't there anything to increase congressional transparency?

"The decision was made that we already have financial disclosure forms as to where we get our income," Stabenow explained in a C-SPAN interview last Sunday. "This is done through other committees. We have an Ethics Committee, we have a Rules Committee. This is beyond our jurisdiction, so we indicated that if there’s more that needs to be done there, then that should be done over there."

Stabenow said in the interview that she would support legislation requiring disclosure of any crop insurance but added that "we already have to disclose where our income comes from, as do Cabinet officials and anyone being nominated."

True, but congressional financial disclosure forms aren't succinct and don't require detailed information on earnings. And Stabenow's concerns about jurisdiction ring a little hollow, because the farm bill is the main authorizing bill for USDA and could include language requiring the disclosure of government aid given to lawmakers and government officials -- if lawmakers really wanted to include it.

"The Department of Agriculture is in their jurisdiction, they track crop insurance. It would be quite easy for the department to release this data if Congress directed them to do so," argued Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "The public deserves to know if lawmakers are voting to feather their nest with increased subsidies ... Farm subsidies have been disclosed for years. All we are saying is that crop insurance should be the same."

EWG's Sara Sciammacco said her group is opposed to the new farm bill because "It shows that some members of Congress want to keep taxpayers in the dark about where their tax dollars are going. We know members of Congress and even billionaires have benefited from traditional farm subsidy programs, but we don't know whether they have benefited from the heavily-subsidized crop insurance program."

It took more than three years for lawmakers to write and approve a new farm bill. Considering how partisanship spoils nearly everything on Capitol Hill these days, it's a miracle the bill ever passed. Another farm bill won't be needed until 2018. The bid for a little bit of congressional transparency on this issue might just have to wait until then.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.



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