Ag money can’t buy the farm bill love

Reps Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Collin Peterson, D-Minn., couldn't bring home the bacon.

In what has to go down as one of Washington's most unlikely outbursts of bipartisanship, opposition from President Barack Obama and a group that spent heavily to defeat him on Thursday helped to sink the farm bill in the House.

The legislation, backed by deep-pocketed agricultural interests, is in limbo after liberal Democrats combined with conservative Republicans to reject the bill by a surprisingly wide 234-195 vote. Republican leaders reportedly blamed Democratic House members for backing away from the bill after Obama threatened to veto it over $20 billion in cuts to the food stamp program. 

But some GOP players also opposed the bill. Americans for Prosperity, which spent more than $33 million last year trying to unseat Obama, also campaigned for the farm bill's defeat. AFP, founded by sibling conservative financiers David and Charles Koch, argued that the farm bill's proposed cuts in food stamps were not deep enough. And, as Sunlight reported earlier this week, the group and its unlikely ally, the Environmental Working Group, have criticized crop insurance provisions in both the House farm bill and a version that the Senate approved last week.  The groups have said that the payouts from crop insurance unfairly go to large agribusinesses, rather than small farmers.

Shortly after the House vote, Americans for Prosperity sent an email telling supporters "your calls and emails made a difference."


The bill's fate in the House is unusual not only because of the strange bedfellows arrayed against it but because it represented an unaccustomed defeat for the powerful forces that backed the nearly $1 trillion bill. A Sunlight analysis found that nine agriculture PACs have maxed out their 2011-2012 contributions — $10,000 to each candidate — to the bill’s sponsors, Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking Rep. Collin Peterson, a Minnesotan who is the panel's top-ranking Democrat. (Several others came close.)

Here's a look at just a few of the sponsors’ major PAC contributors: 

American Crystal Sugar

Currently, sugar processors can borrow money from the government to buy raw sugar from growers. If the price of sugar is too low for a refiner to make a profit, it has the option to keep its loan and give up the sugar, which the U.S. then sells at a loss to ethanol producers. Critics — many from the candy manufacturing industry — contend that the system is a handout to sugar growers and processors, as well as the ethanol industry, and artificially raises sugar prices causing businesses to move overseas. The farm bill as it left committee would maintain the status quo.

American Crystal Sugar, the top contributor to the Agriculture Committee in the 2012 election, gave a total $205,000 to members of the panel, 33% more than the next most generous PAC. Lucas and Peterson got another $49,000 from other sugar-related PACs.

Across the committee, members took in a total $407,648 in campaign contributions from the PACs connected to sugar growers and processors, $144,500 to Democrats and $263,148 to Republicans.

A bipartisan amendment offered by Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., would have reduced the level of support to the sugar growers and processors, but the amendment was defeated Thursday. Pitts accepted $2,150 from the National Confectioners Association, whose members use sugar in their products, as well as $1,000 from Hershey Co. PACs from the food processing and food and beverage sectors gave Pitts a total $28,150.

These sectors also gave an additional $89,000 in the 2012 cycle to Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who supported the amendment with Pitts.

Dairy Farmers of America and Land O’Lakes

Peterson crafted, along with the help of the National Milk Producers Federation, an insurance program that would pay out when the difference between input costs and revenues for milk producers rise above a certain amount. The policy also seeks to stabilize milk prices by preventing market flooding, mostly to the benefit of producers, while opponents contend that dairy processors could face higher prices, according to the Associated Press

In the 2012 cycle alone, both Lucas and Peterson each received the maximum $10,000 from the Dairy Farmers of America and from Land O’Lakes, a dairy-focused cooperative based in Peterson’s home state of Minnesota. Land O' Lakes gave a total of $93,000 to members of the Agriculture Committee. The pair took in at least $44,500 from other dairy PACs, including the National Milk Producers Federation.

Goodlatte proposed an amendment, which passed Thursday, to eliminate the stabilization component of the provision. Dairy processors, who backed the Goodlatte amendment, have made generous donations to key House Republicans: Texas-based dairy processor Dean Foods gave $10,000 to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who backed the amendment, and $9,500 to Goodlatte. The International Dairy Foods Association contributed another $9,500 to Goodlatte.

American Association of Crop Insurers, Texas Farm Bureau and Rain and Hail Insurance Society

All three of these organizations maxed out their contributions to the committee leaders, and the Farm Credit Council, another crop insurance proponent that gave $151,000 to Agriculture Committee members, came close by contributing $19,500 to Lucas and Peterson.

An amendment from Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wisc., would have limited crop insurance payouts, but was voted down Thursday, 217 to 209. 

PAC Donations to Agriculture Committee Leaders