… It isn't often the Humane Society of the United States aligns itself with dairy farmers, ranchers, environmental groups and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The team's goal: Convince Congress to pass legislation requiring public disclosure of financial records showing how about $900 million paid by farmers into nearly two dozen mandatory checkoff programs is spent…
Farmers have been forced to pay $900 million for marketing. Now they are teaming up with animal activists to find out how it was spent.
Cary Spivak, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)
Oct. 3, 2019
When it comes to strange political bedfellows, few groups could top the team pushing for a U.S. Senate bill aimed at reforming the controversial agriculture checkoff program.
It isn't often the Humane Society of the United States aligns itself with dairy farmers, ranchers, environmental groups and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
The team's goal: Convince Congress to pass legislation requiring public disclosure of financial records showing how about $900 million paid by farmers into nearly two dozen mandatory checkoff programs is spent.
The sponsors of the bill are from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Lead sponsor Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is joined by fellow conservative Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and two liberal Democratic senators running for president — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
"We know the only way that we succeed is by building broad-based coalitions of unlikely bedfellows," said Joe Maxwell, a hog farmer and executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, a Nebraska-based group representing farmers, ranchers and others.
"It's an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans, conservatives, progressives, consumer groups, animal groups, farm groups to find work together."
Nevertheless, the proposal has died in Congress twice and has been opposed by some of the biggest players in agriculture, including major food processors, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau.
Opponents, which include some 40 groups, argued the proposal "will gut" the programs and "impose unnecessary, duplicative and counterproductive burdens" on them, according to a letter signed last year by the organizations.
The checkoff program requires farmers producing about two dozen commodities — from beef and eggs to avocados and Christmas trees — to pay a portion of their sales to organizations charged with marketing their products…
Push for disclosure
The checkoff boards are created by Congress and overseen by the USDA.
Unlike governmental bodies, however, financial records — such as detailed budgets and salary information — are not routinely made available for public inspection by the checkoff boards. The legislation would mandate public disclosure of budgets and spending by the boards.
"Sen. Lee believes farmers ought to have the right to know exactly how the checkoff dollars they are forced to pay are being spent," spokesman Conn Carroll said in an email. "Millions of dollars have been spent on questionable research partnerships with fast food giants and extravagant salaries for CEOs."
A second bill sponsored by Lee would make the checkoff program voluntary.
"There is no justification for forcing ranchers who don’t want to participate to do so against their will," Lee said in a statement sent by Carroll.
"We need to reform the checkoff programs to root out corruption," Warren wrote in March on the Medium website. "I support legislation that will make the checkoff program voluntary and ensure that Boards cannot engage in anti-competitive practices or lobby the government."
The Organization for Competitive Markets has been in a public records court fight since 2014 with the USDA in its efforts to obtain financial and audit records regarding the beef checkoff program. The government has released some records, but the organization contends it is withholding thousands of other public records.
Last year, the Organization for Competitive Markets posted its "Top 10 Most Egregious Checkoff Program Abuses."
Among the abuses claimed: The misuse of millions of checkoff dollars, including an attempt by the the American Egg Board to kill sales of a vegan mayonnaise product; a $2.6 million embezzlement by a then-employee of an Oklahoma checkoff program; alleged illegal lobbying and the USDA's failure to file on a timely basis required financial reports.
"We have a common goal and that is to curb the abuse of the USDA checkoff," said Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, a group lobbying for the bill...
Uphill fight in Congress
Proponents acknowledge they have an uphill fight in Congress, but their confidence was boosted last year when an amendment that would have attached the transparency proposal to the farm bill received 38 favorable votes.
Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin voted yes; Democrat Tammy Baldwin voted no.
“Pushing for greater transparency in checkoff programs is an important step Congress should take to ensure Wisconsin farmers’ hard-earned money is being used wisely," Johnson said in a statement issued by his office...
More on the dairy crisis ...