Farm Bill’s corporate farm subsidies remain intact after extensive lobbying

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Dairy farmers are expected to benefit greatly from the 2018 Farm Bill. (KEREM YUCEL/AFP/Getty Images)

Passed overwhelmingly by Congress this week and expected to be signed by President Donald Trump, the new $867 billion Farm Bill has lobbyists’ fingerprints all over it, as is tradition.

More than 500 groups and companies hired lobbyists in 2017 and 2018 to advocate for them during Farm Bill negotiations as of the most recent lobbying disclosure deadline on Sept. 30, making it the fourth-most lobbied bill in the 115th Congress.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was one of 13 Republican Senators to vote against the bill. The senior Senator was irate on the Senate floor Tuesday, criticizing the “dark rooms of conference committee meetings” that removed his Senate-approved amendment to lower the cap on subsidies to high-income farms. Another provision to remove a loophole that allows agri-businesses to designate family members as “farm managers” that can receive up to $125,000 in subsidies, even if they don’t work on the farm, was also removed.

“So far, the bill has not won much praise outside of Washington lobby groups, whose members will receive more taxpayer subsidies from a few select changes,” Grassley said, arguing the bill will allow corporate farms to continue to “manipulate the system” and make life harder for new and small farmers.

Grassley noted the same thing happened in 2014 when a similar amendment of his passed the House and Senate but was removed in conference committees. Grassley is a member of the Agriculture Committee but was not selected to join the conference committee.

What lobbyists were able to accomplish in the so-called “dark rooms” will never be entirely clear, even when fourth-quarter lobbying disclosures are released. But critics from both ends of the ideological spectrum say the bill reinforces a corporate welfare status quo, citing a study that notes over the last two decades, the top 10 percent of farms account for 77 percent of commodity subsidies for a total of $158 billion.

“It is a sad day when bipartisan reforms are ripped out of the final farm bill and replaced by giveaways for the one percent,” said Juli Obudzinski, interim policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Most of the large farm operations don’t appear to be hurting for cash. Concordia Allied Producers, reported as the top recipient of subsidies over the last decade, has its own PAC and has given $163,350 to federal candidates since 2008.

Big corporations jumped into the farm bill debate, some of which don’t have much interest in growing crops or raising livestock, such as Amazon and AT&T. That’s because the bill has long extended its reach beyond just farming.

Funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food-purchasing assistance for more than 40 million Americans, makes up three-quarters of the bill. Conservative groups tried to get the bill to include stricter work requirements for SNAP, but they didn’t make it into the final version.

Anti-hunger groups such as Feeding America focused their lobbying efforts almost entirely on the Farm Bill, as stricter work requirements had the potential to cut 1 million households from the program.

Food and beverage companies such as PepsiCo also weighed in on SNAP. The company has reportedly spent heavily to oppose restrictions to SNAP in the past. A 2018 report found that soda companies send out flurries of ads the same day states distribute food stamp benefits.

The bill authorized an annual $350 million in funding for high-speed internet in rural communities, an increase over the previous $25 million allocation. The Internet & Television Association spent more than $22 million lobbying over the last two years, large sums of which focused on the Farm Bill.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbies on seemingly everything, spending $340 million lobbying since the passage of the last Farm Bill. This year, it spent $33 million on a crop of lobbyists regarding a flurry of bills, including the Farm Bill.

Conservation groups generally considered the bill a win, as it contains cuts to some conservation programs but expands others.

Water conservation group Chesapeake Bay Foundation spent more than $300,000 lobbying on water quality and conservation issues over the last two years. The group thanked Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) for his work in helping secure additional conservation funding in the bill, along with measures that encourage the implementation of runoff-reducing forest buffers.

Casey, a member of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, was one of the top recipients of contributions from lobbyists working on Farm Bill issues, receiving $111,900 in campaign contributions.

Lobbyists working specifically on 2018 Farm Bill negotiations gave nearly $1.7 million in campaign contributions to members of the respective House and Senate agriculture committees.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), also on the Agriculture Committee, was the top recipient with $183,425.

McConnell successfully pushed to get the bill to include legalization of hemp — a cannabis plant that doesn’t get people high but has uses in a variety of products — in hopes that it could become another product for struggling farmers to grow. The recently-established U.S. Hemp Roundtable spent all of its $230,000 lobbying the Farm Bill.

The Humane Society of the U.S. spent $80,000 lobbying the bill and other issues, successfully killing an amendment from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) meant to prevent states from regulating farm animal production in other states.

The amendment stemmed from a HSUS-backed California law that imposed regulations on how hens that lay eggs sold in California are raised, regardless of which state they are raised in, a measure King argued was unconstitutional.

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said the dairy industry — which has been devastated by low milk prices — is the “biggest winner” in the new bill. The House Agriculture Committee’s ranking member said changes to the Margin Protection Program for dairy farmers will make it difficult for small dairy farmers to lose money.

The dairy industry spent nearly $12 million lobbying over the last two years. The National Milk Producers Federation, which spent nearly $1.2 million lobbying over the last two years, thanked Peterson and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas), both of whom represent agriculture-heavy districts and are top recipients of the dairy industry, for their work in getting the changes done.

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