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Campaign $$$ and Agriculture

One evening during the Commodity Classic in Phoenix last winter, members of the National Corn Growers Association gathered in a hotel ballroom to bid at an auction. It wasn't farm machinery on the block. Bidders vied for a three-day fishing trip at North Dakota's Devil's Lake, an iPad given by the Kansas Corn Growers, and a kayak tour of the Potomac River by NCGA's Washington insider, Jon Doggett.

Proceeds support the NCGA Corn PAC, which in 2013 and 2014 spent $368,145 combined to help candidates for Congress – 35% to Democrats and 65% to Republicans.

Now that most totals for the 2014 election have been reported to the Federal Election Commission, it's a good time to check on agriculture's ranking in the game of money and politics.

Successful Farming magazine looked at who the top contributors were to eight members of Congress whose work affects agriculture (shown below). Those eight include the Republican chairs and ranking Democrats on the ag committees in the House and Senate, and the corresponding leaders of two key energy-related committees in Congress that have targeted ethanol's Renewable Fuel Standard.

The totals come from public records compiled by OpenSecrets.org, a website of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

As you'll see below, NCGA is not a top contributor to these members of Congress. The group's largest contribution, a modest $9,500 last year, went to Representative Lee Terry (R-NE), who lost the 2014 race in his Omaha-area district.

Even when OpenSecrets.org lumps together major ag industries, NCGA isn't in the top five contributors for five of these key leaders. Their top donors include energy, lawyers and finance. NCGA is in the crop production and basic processing group that was the biggest industry donor to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway and top Democrat Collin Peterson. NCGA ranks fifth in that group in total giving to all candidates. The American Soybean Association was eighth at press time. American Crystal Sugar, which spent more than $2.5 million on Congress, tops that group.

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When OpenSecrets.org sorts political money from large economic interest groups, it shows how much each gives to candidates and to outside groups, including super PACs that can plow unlimited sums into attack ads. These new groups, arising after the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, include those of the Koch brothers on the right and NextGen Climate Action on the left.

In these big sectors of the economy, finance/insurance/real estate rises to the top. That sector spent $334 million for all candidates in the last election cycle, far ahead of $86 million spent by the energy and natural resources sector that includes Koch Industries. All of agriculture spent $62.6 million.

Still, that's enough to rank agriculture 10th. Russ Choma, a writer and investigator for OpenSecrets.org, says ag spends more than the defense industry, which ranks 13th at $25 million. “Agriculture is still very powerful,” Choma says. Ag is more focused than banking, for example, which contributes to more committees and works more issues, he says. Even if ag groups aren't in the top five industries for Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, Choma says that over Roberts' career, ag services/products has been his second-biggest industry backer, contributing $884,601. In the last election, ag still ranked sixth for Roberts. The tables on pages 48 and 50 show only direct giving to candidates, not outside groups like super PACs, which can't coordinate advertising with candidates. Roberts was one of two among these eight with a large number of outside groups, 53, spending in his close election battle (including those for and against him).

Mixed ag views on perpetual fundraising

Kansas farmer Ken McCauley has served on the NCGA Corn PAC board eight years. He's pleased to hear that some in Washington consider agriculture influential. “I'm really happy that money isn't everything,” McCauley says. “It's important that we in agriculture work together, and most of the time we do. I think that's probably an equalizer in this whole thing.”

A lobbyist for another ag group says agricultural spending has stayed constant while other groups have increased theirs. When many farmers contact their members of Congress, it helps offset ag's smaller contributions. The result in 2014: “We passed two major pieces of legislation,” a farm bill and a water resources bill, the lobbyist says.

Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union, agrees that farmer participation is key. His own group has a modest PAC that raised about $64,000 for the 2014 election, so members fly in to Washington to visit Capitol Hill.

Yet Johnson is concerned about the increasing time that members of Congress spend on fund-raising for their elections.

“I get literally hundreds of emails a week, inviting me to fund-raisers,” says Johnson. At those fund-raising meetings, sometimes with only six or eight representatives of an industry, each person gets a chance to talk about his or her key issues with a member of Congress.

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“It's a system that is corrosive to democracy, and money absolutely talks,” says Johnson. “Our system has become just permeated with money, and it ramped up after the Supreme Court decision.”

Choma at OpenSecrets.org agrees that money seems to be buying influence, or at least more time with members of Congress than the average constituent would get.

“The professional players are always giving money, all the time,” he says.

“Donations for a powerful senator will be pretty consistent,” he says. “They don't neglect the ranking member, because he or she might become chairman at any moment.” Donations to the chairman and ranking member are usually larger than those to committee members, “because nothing happens without the chairman's permission,” he says.

Proving the influence of all this money is difficult.

“Technically, it's illegal to give a member of Congress something and have them do something in return,” Choma says. Members often say they're being rewarded for what they've already done.

The importance of a ranking committee member is another reason why Roberts got less from ag groups than you'd expect for a chairman. Before the 2014 election, Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi was the ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee when Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, led the committee as it finished the farm bill.

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Oil vs. ethanol

Another senator with a lot of power over the price of corn is James Inhofe, the 80-year-old Oklahoma Republican who seemed to coast to reelection last fall with 68% of the vote. Inhofe is best known for tossing a snowball on the floor of the Senate and questioning climate change. He's also a steadfast opponent of the RFS, saying in 2013 that “the RFS – all of it – must be repealed.” His committee's top Democrat, Barbara Boxer, has been a supporter of the RFS, unlike her California Democratic colleague, Senator Diane Feinstein, who wants to remove corn ethanol from the RFS. Inhofe's biggest contributor was Devon Energy, an independent oil and gas exploration and production company. His oil and gas industry backers include Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Halliburton, and Phillips 66 (at $10,000 apiece).

When Boxer last ran for reelection in 2010, her top donor was Emily's List, a PAC that supports pro-choice women candidates. Most of the groups shown in the tables of top contributors give a mix of money from individuals and affiliated PACs. OpenSecrets.org counts Emily's List as individual giving, aggregated by the PAC.

When Boxer ran against former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, more than 100 outside groups poured money into the race.

Although not as vocal about the RFS as Inhofe, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton has tried for a rewrite of the RFS and has expressed interest in taking another run at it this year. Among his top oil and gas backers are Koch Industries, Energy Transfer Partners, and some companies among Inhofe's big backers.

One ethanol PAC, Growth Energy, also gave a modest $1,000 to Upton in 2013-2014. Growth Energy ranks fifth among alternative industry contributors, with a $128,250 war chest. It pales beside Koch Industries' $9.5 million, which tops the oil and gas sector.

Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis remains an optimist with ethanol's strong Midwest grassroots support. “In politics, you need money, and you need votes. In ethanol, we have far more supporters than oil does, and they have more money.”

Yet, he sees super PACs giving more power to the oil industry. “In my opinion, the system is getting worse, not better,” Buis says.

Farm groups, too, give millions

Ken McCauley dreams of perhaps doubling the funds the NCGA Corn PAC can give to candidates. The Kansas farmer and past NCGA president has chipped in a few thousand dollars of his own money over the years. Yet, when the website OpenSecrets.org sorts out the funds contributed by PACs in crop production and basic processing, the commodity that clearly dominates is sugar.

American Crystal Sugar tops the list at more than $2.5 million. Michigan Sugar gave more than $550,000. Five sugar co-ops and groups make the top 10 list of crop producers and processing PACs. One farm group lobbyist says sugar interests seem to get a lot of time with ag committee leaders during fund-raisers.

The American Soybean Association, ranked eigth at press time, was about the same in contributions as NCGA. (Totals constantly change, depending on the list and latest public reports.)

All of this money is aimed at getting access to members of Congress, says McCauley. It's not a guarantee of anything, though.

“The people we've contributed to don't always do what we've asked them to do,” says McCauley.

How does the PAC decide who to support in an election?

It's based on the policy NCGA adopts at its annual Corn Congress at the Commodity Classic, McCauley says.

“We look at their voting record and decide who's been most supportive to decide how much to give,” he says. “It's about voting record. It's about leadership. It's about which committee they're on,” he says.

Sometimes that means betting on the wrong horse. In 2014, the second top recipient from NCGA Corn PAC was former Iowa Congressman Bruce Braley, with $8,500. He lost to Republican Joni Ernst in their race for one of Iowa's seats in the Senate.

Braley had supported the farm bill and ethanol. “He had a voting record, even though it was in the House, and she was not an incumbent from either place,” says McCauley. “She didn't have a scorecard.”

The Braley-Ernst race also shows ag interest groups aren't always united. Ernst was the top fund recipient from Deere & Company, which gave her $10,450.

An app taps funding

When a member of Congress supports a cause, is there money behind that decision? Now, you can find out by moving your computer's mouse.

A new Web browser plug-in, Greenhouse, draws upon public data to display a quick window of financial contributions by industry sector when a Congress member's name is displayed in the browser. It's available for Safari, Chrome, and Firefox.

“It contains total contributions and industry breakdown from the current election cycle, and small donations of more than $200 from 2012,” says the software's website, allaregreen.us.

The creator of Greenhouse, 17-year-old Nick Rubin, says he hopes the tool will help voters keep lawmakers accountable for their voting records and money behind them.

“If you use Greenhouse when reading about a Congressional vote on energy policy, for example, maybe you'll discover that a sponsor of a bill has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the oil and gas industry,” Rubin says.

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