The New Weed: Money
The influence of money on politics is similar to weeds, something that may never go away no matter how many controls are thrown at it.
This month’s issue of Successful Farming (SF) opens a small window on the process in the last, 2014 congressional election cycle, just as 2016 presidential politics are starting to bloom in states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
In SF we feature the role of just one farmer-funded political action committee, NCGA Corn PAC that’s tied to the National Corn Growers Association. We also look at the top contributors to leaders in the House and Senate who control important agricultural legislation and we visit with farm group leaders and lobbyists about the process of financing congressional campaigns.
All of the information we looked at, public data from the nonpartisan website, OpenSecrets.org, summarizes activities that most likely are legal. Depending on your point of view about the agricultural industry’s role in Congress, this isn’t a story about scandal so much as about a process that some believe is getting worse, and perhaps one day will leave agriculture behind.
“Fundraising is almost a full time job for members of Congress these days,” says Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union (NFU). “I get literally hundreds of emails a week inviting me to fundraisers.”
Lobbyists tied to political action committees attend those fund raisers to make donations and talk about key issues with a representative or senator. Sometimes those fund raisers will draw only six or eight members of an industry. Farm group lobbyists say that PACs are crucial for getting access and face time with members of Congress. Technically, campaign contributions can’t be tied to a specific request, a quid pro quo. That’s potentially an illegal bribe.
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.
If you farm in traditional Corn Belt states, you may not be familiar with NFU, a group that is strongest in the Upper Midwest and Great Plains. But with 200,000 members and 33 state chapters, NFU is the nation’s second largest general farm organization. Its dues-paying membership is nearly five times that of the NCGA, which has 42,000 members (and is affiliated with 300,000 farmers who support state corn check-off organizations).
Still, NFU has only a modest-sized PAC of its own, raising about $64,000 for the last election cycle. It must rely more on having members fly in to meet with their representatives in Congress to promote NFU issues.
Johnson has experience running for office himself, being elected four times as Agriculture Commissioner in his home state of North Dakota.
Still, he does not like the influence of campaign contributions on the federal lawmaking process.
“It is a system that is corrosive to democracy and money absolutely talks,” he says. “Not every member of Congress is beholden to people who give them money. There are different levels of integrity. But at the end of the day, everybody has to get elected.”
“Our system has become just permeated with money, and it ramped up after the Supreme Court decision,” Johnson says.
Johnson is referring to the 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The Court ruled that a ban on corporations, unions and nonprofits making “electioneering communications” 60 days before a general election violated First Amendment free speech rights. The decision opened the flood gates for well-funded campaign and attack ads from both the right and the left. Later litigation and court rulings led to so-called Super PACs, which can take unlimited amounts of donations from corporations, unions and individuals. They cannot donate directly to a political candidate, however.
Campaign contributions are still made by traditional PACs including those run by NFU and NCGA. Such PACs cannot accept more than $5,000 per year from an individual. On the OpenSecrets website you can see how those farm groups and others such as the American Soybean Association spend campaign funds. Most donate to members of Congress from both political parties, although NCGA and ASA tilt more toward Republicans and NFU gives more to Democrats.
Farm policies written by congressional ag committees have traditionally not been partisan, but other issues that affect farmers often are.
Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, an ethanol lobbying group, also worries about the effects of money in politics.
“The Citizens United Decision by the Supreme Court is probably one of the worst things that ever happened to our democracy,” says Buis.
Buis argues that Super PACs “have an outsized influence on the process.”
“In my opinion, the system is getting worse, not better,” he says.
When asked if Super PACs have an influence on agriculture and energy policy, Buis says, “I’m sure they do.”
Among the best known supporters of Super PACs are the brothers, Charles and David Koch. Through their Freedom Partners Action Fund and other organizations, the Koch Brothers have become so influential in the Republican Party they’ve been compared to a third national party. Although a Koch Industries business is now one of the nation’s largest ethanol producers, the brothers are on record as opposing ethanol subsidies (which no longer exist at the federal level) and opposing mandates. Through their traditional PAC, Koch Industries supports opponents of the Renewable Fuel Standard such as Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Including both Super PACs and traditional campaign donation PACs, the oil industry far outspends the renewable fuels industry, according to the way OpenSecrets breaks down public records of campaign spending.
The Energy and Natural Resources sector of the economy spent some $115 million on the 2014 congressional elections, with Koch Industries topping a list dominated by oil companies. That list shows Koch Industries spending $9.5 million, but a more detailed look at Koch that’s more current shows its spending at nearly $11 million.
In contrast, the “Alternative Energy Production and Services” sector (which OpenSecrets includes as part of the larger Energy sector), spent a paltry $2.3 million out of that $115 million total. The biggest contributor in that alternative energy industry was ethanol maker, POET, LLC. It gave less than $500,000. The lobbying group Buis works for, Growth Energy, ranked fifth on that list, giving about $129,000.
As a David facing the oil industry Goliath, Buis remains confident that he still has a strong weapon.
“In politics, you need money and you need voters. In ethanol, we have far more supporters than oil does. They have more money,” he says.
Yet those voters will have to be active, he says. The RFS remains under attack in Congress by both liberal and conservative members.
“There shouldn’t be a farmer in America who isn’t out there engaging their policy maker about this, because it affects their livelihoods,” Buis says.