Officially, the 2004 presidential election kicked off Labor Day. Unofficially, the Bush re-election effort at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture kicked off the day after Ann Veneman became ag secretary in January, 2001.
Never, say old-timers both at USDA and in Congress, has a USDA boss used Lincoln’s People’s Department so openly and so overtly to promote the White House’s political agenda.
Proof of that fact, they say, arrives every day.
For example, on Sept. 28 Veneman doled out 93 USDA “Renewable Energy Systems” grants totaling $21 million. Two states, Wisconsin and Minnesota, were showered with more than half the grants and half the money, $11.3 million.
Are the two states just naturally blessed with more renewable energy ideas than, say, Indiana or Idaho or could it be that Wisconsin and Minnesota are two big states still up for grabs in the presidential race?
Everything is politics. Some politicking by USDA is to be expected says one 21-year veteran of Capitol Hill.
“After all,” he notes, “everything in Washington is 50 percent politics and 50 percent substance.”
Under Veneman, however, “USDA is 90 percent politics and 10 percent substance,” he figures.
That imbalance came to light in the latest revelation of Bush promotion by USDA.
On the big screen. On Sept. 7, the National Journal’s Jerry Hagstrom reported on an April 20, 2004 PowerPoint presentation by three career USDA staffers to the American Dairy Products Institute and the American Butter Institute.
The first page of the 16-page presentation outlines “USDA 2004 Goals and Objectives in an election year.” It then lists only one goal: “Maximize votes from major dairy states.”
To emphasize that point, the page features caricatures of an elephant and donkey duking it our with boxing gloves.
The presentation’s second page, titled How to Maximize Votes” lists two ways the Bush White House, with USDA’s able hands, will milk dairy states for votes: Keep milk prices “Strong” through “Market fundamentals [and] Supportive policy actions.”
Another cartoon, this one of a man and woman casting “votes” into a “ballot box,” drives home the point of exercise – get dairy farmers to vote for Bush.
The following pages contain USDA data on dairy production, prices, the federal deficit, and the cost of MILC, the Milk Income Loss Contract program instituted in the 2002 Farm Bill to assist smaller dairy farms.
All are supporting evidence for a final page, Election Year Fallout. That fallout, caused largely by “Federal budget deficit,” includes bullet points that will riddle dairy farmers – termination of the MILC program, a “small producer assessment” to take up the slack, “support price decline,” no legislation to slow milk protein imports, and “Another ’tilt,’ ” a rejiggering of the formula to determine U.S. milk prices.
Public outrage. When Hagstrom’s scoop went public, several dairy state congressmen went ballistic.
One, David Obey, D-Wis., and the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, wrote Veneman to decry USDA’s role in a public presentation that “reads like a partisan campaign document.”
Obey wanted to know if USDA had plans “to impose a milk tax,” “cut milk price supports” and support an extension of MILC after its September 2005 expiration.
He also asked Veneman “who at USDA approved the presentation” and if it is “fair to conclude that USDA dairy policy will continue to be driven by political considerations