Who’s the money behind the farm bill?


As the Senate debates the farm bill this week, a once-every-five-years lobbying extravaganza that sets policy on farm subsidies, food assistance, nutrition, and myriad other agricultural programs, here's a quick look at some of the big money interests that are involved, as well as pressure points for transparency, or the lack of it.Head shot of Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

The money. Agribusiness has already sunk $39.2 million in direct contributions to federal candidate and party coffers this election cycle, nearly three-fourths of that to Republican interests, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2008, the last presidential election cycle, which also happened to be when the last farm bill was debated and passed, the total reached $68.1 million. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who is up for reelection this year, is the top recipient of agribusiness campaign contributions this election cycle.Stabenow, seen at right, also happens to be chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the lead sponsor of the legislation.

Crop Insurance. Michigan's corn growers and soybean farmers have high praise for Stabenow and the farm bill. Southern cotton, peanut, and rice farmers, however, are not so happy with it. At issue is one of the major changes the bill would make — eliminating $5 billion worth of direct payments to crop farmers and replacing it with an expanded government-subsidized crop insurance program. Southerners say that because their crops more often fall victim to price fluctuation than to the natural disasters that can decimate Midwestern crops, they will suffer disproportionately. Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) along with conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and budget watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense say the crop insurance program is just another form of subsidy. Stabenow has taken $10,000 from the American Association of Crop Insurers' Political Action Committee (PAC). The group's executive director and lobbyist, Michael McLeod, has also contributed to her campaign, as has Rain and Hail Insurance Society, a crop insurance company. 

Who benefits from crop insurance? EWG maintains a farm subsidy database based on farm program payment data that the advocacy group obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Using these data, the group has been able to show how farm subsidy payments often go to urban residents; for example, in New York City, in 2010, 290 farm subsidy recipients collected a total of $800,887. In addition, in 2011, just 10 percent of farm businesses received more than half of all insurance subsidies. The USDA, however, does not release all the data needed for the public to get a complete picture of how these programs work, charges the group. EWG favors an amendment to be offered by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, that would make public the names of recipients of government-subsidized crop insurance.

Food assistance.  The current version of the Senate bill cuts deeply into the largest food assistance program, trimming $4.5 billion over ten years from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), the program that provides food benefits to one in seven Americans. Sen. Karen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has said she will offer an amendment to eliminate cuts by reducing crop insurance benefits, which has been joined by Republican Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass. An investigative report released this week by Michele Simon, a public health consultant and longtime critic of the food industry, makes the argument that the program should not be cut in a time of economic need–but also that there should be more transparency about how SNAP spending is influenced by and benefits corporate interests. The food industry fought a request by New York City to exempt soda from SNAP benefits, and large companies such as Pepsico, Cargill, and Kroger have reported lobbying on SNAP. Meanwhile, she reports that neither the federal government nor the states make public information on how much retailers profit when SNAP beneficiaries obtain their food there or what sort of food is purchased via the program. Neither are data provided on how much banks such as JPMorgan Chase earn via contracts to provide benefits via electronic transfer. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has introduced legislation that would, among other things, require that retailers who make more than $1 million per year on SNAP sales to report the food purchased by program recipients to the USDA. Wyden's bill is stalled.


Sugar. On Wednesday, big sugar beat back an attempt by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to eliminate a decades-old sugar price support program. The Senate voted 50 to 46 to table her amendment. Sugar interests such as American Crystal Sugar and Flo-Sun Inc. are among the biggest campaign contributors in the agribusiness sector, giving to Democrats and Republicans alike. The sugar industry gains strength from having two geographic strongholds–the South, where sugar cane is grown, and the mid-west, the source of sugar beets. However, sugar's opponents, the interests that buy sugar for their products, is also quite formidable. The Coalition for Sugar Reform, which supported the Shaheen amendment, include such heavyweights as the American Beverage Association, the Food Marketing Institute, and the Snack Food Association, which in turn have powerful corporate membership.

To download agribusiness political contribution data on Influence Explorer, click here.

To set up alerts to follow aspects of the farm bill, such as "crop insurance," or "Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program," try Sunlight's Scout service.

(Photo: Office of Sen. Debbie Stabenow)