By Capitol Hill standards, $95.5 million is chicken feed; but even chicken feed has a purpose: fatter broilers, happier hens, more eggs.
In 2005, agribusiness spent $95,469,961 on high-protein feed – lobbying money – to influence Congress on everything from halting global warming legislation to pushing crop disaster relief caused by global warming.
Now, however, this money-fueled merry-go-around promises to slow as both the U.S. House and Senate recently passed versions of lobbying reform.
Each hopes to throttle an influence machine that has spun out of control.
Numbers. According to public data, the number of lobbyists working Washington has doubled since 2000; now more than 34,750 ply their trade in the nation’s capital.
In 2005, according to the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, $2.28 billion was spent on D.C. lobbying in 2005.
The incredible sum means lobbyists spent $6.25 million every day of 2005 to influence your government and your representatives, or an unfathomable $4.26 million per senator and congressman.
If the money – which, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, also paid for at least 23,000 trips taken by lawmakers and their aides since 2000 – is viewed as an investment, it was cash well spent.
Special projects. For example, the number of earmarks, those money-dripping “special projects” slipped into most federal spending measures by most reps, rose from 6,114 in 2000 to 14,211 in 2004.
The cost climbed also, from $38 billion to $52.7 billion, according to the government’s own Congressional Research Service.
Ag lobbyists, like every other lobbyist, bellied up to the trough, too. The number and cost of earmarks for U.S. Department of Agriculture money rose from 359 and $271.2 million in 2000 to 704 and $500.5 million in 2004.
(Total federal spending rose nearly as fast, up 30 percent over the same period.) And, too, the big ag players, like all lobbyists, spent big bucks.
According to data collected under federal reporting laws and analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics, the American Farm Bureau Federation spent $7.9 million lobbying Capitol Hill and federal agencies in 2005; the National Farmers Union spent $1 million.
Other commodity groups, according to Center for Responsive Politics findings, spent varying sums in 2005: the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, $420,370; the National Pork Producers Council, $404,125; the National Corn Growers, $550,000; the American Soybean Association, $370,000; the National Association of Wheat Growers, $120,000.
Agbiz was in there pitching, too: Dean Foods, $1.6 million; Dairy Farmers of America, $620,000; Tyson Foods, $1.08 million; Monsanto Co., $3.04 million; Smithfield Foods, $880,000; Crop Life of America, $1.9 million; Syngenta, $960,000.
Overdue. “Plain and simple,” said Tom Buis, National Farmers Union former lobbyist, now its president, “over the last five or six years there’s been more checkbook influence on Capitol Hill than people influence. Lobbying reform is long overdue.”
Mary Kay Thatcher, one of Farm Bureau’s dozen or more Washington lobbyists, agrees but sees “lobbying reform affecting us” – nonprofits like the major farm and commodity groups – “less than the for profits,” such as big agbiz.
“We don’t wine and dine Hill people like they do,” she explained; “our strengths are grassroots members and issues-to-the-forefront. The reforms will likely enhance face-to-face, issue-directed lobbying like ours.”
Independent lobbying watchers agree; hard facts and sincere faces will become more influential than rare steaks and even rarer Scotch.
Corruption. “Breaking the corrupting influence of lobbyist money is crucial for better government,” related Craig Holman of Public Citizen, “because you’ll never have one without the other.”
Lobbying reform, said Alex Knot of the Center for Public Integrity, is even more important than campaign finance reform because, “Typically, two times more money is spent on lobbying than on campaigns.”
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)
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