06/07/2018 Marty Irby | Senior adviser and head of rural affairs at The Humane Society of the United States
To those of us closely watching the 2018 Farm Bill deliberations over the past weeks, it came as no surprise when the bill, H.R. 2, fell by a 198-213 vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. The highly controversial legislation likely failed for several reasons. Most fingers pointed to the partisan clash over immigration policy, but there was much more to it than that if you were a family farmer or rancher. Conspicuously, the Farm Bill in its House form also failed to help these thousands of good American producers, many of whom are currently suffering under great financial hardship and facing bad odds in the marketplace.
One bright spot in what many considered a truly maligned farm bill was the opportunity to advance much-needed reforms of the USDA’s checkoff programs in an amendment, led by U.S. Reps. Dave Brat (R-VA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), and Dina Titus (D-NV). We’re grateful to these members for standing up for family farmers and ranchers during a time when too little support or care is given to those who dedicate their lives to feeding the American people.
The filing of the bipartisan checkoff amendment, the equivalent of the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act, H.R. 1753, brought unprecedented attention to the need for reform. The measure called for transparency and accountability in commodity checkoff programs, while prohibiting checkoff funds from being illegally utilized to attack other agricultural commodities or products, and against animal welfare measures. Its standalone counterpart in the U.S. Senate, S.741, was also strongly bipartisan, with Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) leading the charge in the Upper Chamber.
Originally established as a way to pool money for commodity-specific promotion and research, and mandated to be funded directly from farmer payments, the checkoff programs have gone beyond their intended scope and have become a source of corruption and mischief. The presence of illegal relationships between checkoff boards and lobbying organizations and the misuse of checkoff funds to influence legislation have done a serious wrong to family farmers and ranchers, agricultural advocates and organizations that support them, all of whom are crying foul. Historically, audits and reports have repeatedly revealed that the more that hundreds of millions of dollars collected annually for checkoff funds have been improperly spent, with devastating results for the producers whose hard-earned money is being spent in ways that don’t serve their best interests.
More than 80 farm organizations, representing over 250,000 family farmers and ranchers, have expressed their support of the checkoff reform measure in the 2018 Farm Bill along with groups like the Heritage Foundation, R Street, and National Taxpayers Union.
Now, we have an opportunity to fix these grossly misused programs. During the first few weeks of June, the Senate is expected to mark up its own version of the Farm Bill, and the House is planning to again vote on its bill on June 22. We hope that the Senate will listen to the more than 250,000 farmers and ranchers calling for checkoff reform and include checkoff reforms in its Farm Bill. That bill, one might say, is long overdue.
Marty Irby is a senior adviser and head of rural affairs at The Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C.