2007, Congress will attempt to reauthorize the nation's farm
legislation and will likely continue to bestow substantial
financial benefits upon a relatively small number of the largest
and wealthiest farmers. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data
reveal that this group of direct financial beneficiaries includes
many Members of Congress who receive USDA subsidies and who will be
voting on the farm bill reauthorization. Under current law, many
Members and their families who engage in farming receive
direct cash payments from the U.S. Treasury courtesy of the
taxpayer, whose standard of living has been reduced by the higher
taxes needed to fund the farm program and by the higher food prices
caused by agriculture subsidies, restrictions, and
While the best
solution to these conflicts of interest would be to abolish the
farm subsidy program, a backup plan would be to apply strict
conflict-of-interest principles to the program by requiring
that Members of Congress who benefit from it financially
either recuse themselves from voting on any farm legislation or
forgo any farm subsidies for which they and their families and
relatives would be eligible.
Inconsistencies in Federal Conflict-of-Interest
Of the three
branches of the federal government, Congress has the fewest
prohibitions on conflicts of interest and acts of self-dealing.
Officials in the executive branch and judiciary are required
to divest themselves of any investment in or ownership of
for-profit entities that may be within the purview of their agency
or court. They are also under strict limits on the extent to which
members of their immediate families may benefit directly from
Members of Congress are not required to divest themselves of any
financial interest, even if that interest is subject to their
official oversight and influence. Nor are they required to recuse
themselves from voting on issues that may harm or benefit the
personal investment interests of themselves or their relatives.
continues to operate without the strict ethical requirements common
to the executive branch and judiciary, it has become
increasingly uneasy with the extent to which some Members have
taken advantage of this ethical lacuna and the unfavorable media
attention it has drawn.
Members of Congress have introduced legislation that would
deter conflicts of interest in some federal spending
decisions, although these limits would apply only to earmarks.
Having finally recognized and proposed remedies for the conflicts
of interest inherent in one source of spending, a good place
for Members to begin expanding the ethics enhancement process would
be the $25 billion per year that the federal government spends on
subsidies to farmers and ranchers.
Members of Congress Benefit Personally
Exactly how many
Members of Congress benefit directly from USDA subsidies has not
been fully established, but several studies and articles have
uncovered some information, and the record indicates that some
Members and their families receive substantial financial benefits.
Some of these Members have been serving in Congress for many
years, including extensive service on the agriculture
committees. Others have just been elected to Congress and,
while they have yet to take a stand on agriculture spending,
nonetheless confront the challenge of a potential conflict of
examples represent a cross-section of Members of Congress who have
received USDA subsidies between 1995 and 2005. The list is not
intended to be definitive, and other examples will likely come to
light, but this sample illustrates the extent to which these
potential conflicts of interest exist and the significant amounts
of money that are involved. The information was compiled by the
Environmental Working Group from USDA data.
Subsidies in Big Sky Country. Senator R. Jon Tester
(D-MT), newly elected in November 2006, and his wife Sharla are
equal co-owners of T-bone Farms, Inc., in Big Sandy Springs,
Montana. Between 1995 and 2005, the farm received $232,311 in USDA
subsidies for oats, wheat, barley, and dry peas and assistance for
Members of the
family of Montana's senior Senator, Max Sieben Baucus (D-MT),
own the Sieben Ranch Company in Wolf Creek, Montana. Between 1995
and 2005, Sieben Ranch (co-owned by six members of the Baucus
family) received $230,237 from the USDA. There are conflicting reports
on the Senator's financial ownership interest in the enterprise,
and queries to his office on this matter were not answered.
(R-MT), Montana's lone Representative, and his wife Janice
have received USDA subsidies in the past but nothing in recent
Gordon H. Smith (R-OR). Senator Smith and his wife Sharon
co-own Smith Frozen Foods in Umatilla, Oregon. The company received
$45,400 in wheat-related subsidies between 1995 and 2005.
Salazars of Colorado. Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO), elected
in November 2004, and his brother, Representative John T. Salazar
(D-CO), also elected in November 2004, sit on the agriculture
committees of their respective legislative bodies. From 1995
through 2005, the Representative received $161,084 in
agricultural subsidies from the U.S. Treasury, and the
Senator received $770 in 2002.
Family of Senator Charles Grassley. Senator Charles
Grassley (R-IA) has extensive farm interests, as do some members of
his immediate family. Listing his home address as Arlington,
Virginia, Grassley received $225,041 in USDA subsidies
for corn and soybeans and disaster assistance between 1995 and
In New Hartford,
Iowa, Senator Grassley's son Robin has received $653,833 in subsidy
payments, mostly for corn and soybeans. Patrick Grassley, the
Senator's grandson, who also lives in New Hartford, received $5,964
in subsidies in 2005.
Herseths of South Dakota. Representative Stephanie Herseth
Sandlin (D-SD), elected in November 2002, was appointed to a seat
on the House Agriculture Committee. While records indicate
that she receives no USDA subsidies, her father and former South
Dakota governor, Ralph Lars Herseth, is a major beneficiary of
federal farm programs. Between 1995 and 2005, he received
$789,575 in federal farm support for a diversified portfolio of
crops and farm activities.
Brownbacks of Kansas. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS)
received $40,403 in farm subsidies (mostly for conservation)
between 1995 and 2005. His father, Glenn Robert Brownback of
Parker, Kansas, received $319,662 over the same period, and his
brother, John R. Brownback, also of Parker, received $286,082.
Stock Farms, Inc. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), who is a
senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and his
wife Charlene own just over 12 percent of Lugar Stock Farms in
Oxford, Indiana. The other 88 percent is owned by 13 other family
members. Between 1995 and 2005, Lugar Stock Farms, Inc., received
$126,555 in USDA subsidies.
More, Past and Present. These elected officials are among
a number of Senators and Representatives--including
Representative Dennis Hastert (R-IL), Senator Blanche Lincoln
(D-AR), and many others no longer in office
Working Group's USDA list of subsidy recipients does not include
any information beyond the name, farm, and location of the
beneficiary and thus makes no distinction between elected officials
and all others. As a result, a search of the data reveals many
other subsidy recipients with names similar to a Member of
Congress. However, limitations on available materials and an
absence of corroborating information discourage their inclusion at
this time. In a country of more than 300 million people, linking a
specific individual to a specific payment is often
efforts to conduct an accurate and comprehensive search is the fact
that some Members use different names professionally and some
maintain residences in the Washington, D.C., area.
- Representative Stephanie Herseth is actually Stephanie Sandlin
by marriage but maintains her maiden name.
- Senator Jon Tester receives his USDA subsidies as R. Jon
Tester, so a search of USDA files for just "Jon Tester" would yield
nothing, as would a similar search for former Senator Mike DeWine
(R-OH), who receives his subsidies as R. Michael DeWine.
- Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) received her earlier USDA
subsidies under her maiden name: Blanche Lambert of Arlington,
- Similarly, Senator Grassley receives subsidy payments for
corn and soybeans grown in Iowa as Charles Grassley of Arlington,
receiving USDA subsidies may be difficult to find or identify
because of similar naming and geographical uncertainties.
Politically Influential Recipients of Subsidies
Congress are not the only politically influential individuals and
institutions that receive USDA subsidies. Professional lobbyists,
leaders of agriculture trade associations, state agencies, and
politically active not-for-profit organizations also receive funds
from the USDA.
of Montana. Two agencies of the State of Montana receive
substantial subsidies for farm land that they own or hold in trust.
The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation's
Trust Land Management Division received $35,314,692 from the USDA
between 1995 and 2005, making it the largest subsidy recipient in
largest recipient was the Montana Board of Investments, which
manages and invests the cash balances, trust funds, and pension
pools controlled by Montana state and local governments and other
public entities. Included in its investment portfolio are
agriculture lands eligible for USDA payments. Between 1995 and
2005, the board received $21,062,181 from the USDA.
Washington Department of Natural Resources.
Between 1995 and 2005, the Department of Natural Resources received
$11,412,027 in USDA subsidies, making it the largest subsidy
recipient in the State of Washington.
Unlimited. Ducks Unlimited, an Oregon-based not-for-profit
organization focused on wetlands and other conservation
issues, received $28,338,088 from the USDA from 1995 to 2005.
According to the Environmental Working group, which posts the USDA
Over 80 percent
of the payments listed for Ducks Unlimited are "cost share"
reimbursements for technical assistance to restore
wetlands at many locations on private lands not owned by D.U.
The technical assistance is provided to private landowners
under contractual arrangements through USDA's Natural
Resources Conservation Services.
these federal payments amount to substantial revenues for the
organization and allow it to expand its activities and influence
beyond what would be possible without them. Not surprisingly, Ducks
Unlimited is a strong advocate of the USDA programs and urges its
members to contact their elected representatives to support
reauthorization of the farm bill and its conservation components.
Association of Wheat Growers. The National Association of
Wheat Growers, the trade association for wheat farmers, is a
leading advocate for USDA wheat subsidies. Daren Coppock, chief
executive officer of the association and a registered lobbyist in
Washington, D.C., is a part owner of Coppock Ranch, Inc., in
Umatilla, Oregon, which received $24,224 in USDA subsidies from
1995 to 2005, mostly for wheat.
Corn Growers Association. The National Corn Growers
Association is the leading representative for the nation's corn
farmers and urges its members to send letters to their Members of
Congress that contain the following language:
I am writing to
request your support for an increase in available funding for
the 2007 Farm Bill, legislation that will authorize farm,
conservation, renewable energy, nutrition and economic
development programs that are so critical to the success of family
farms and our rural communities. While corn growers understand
the urgent need to reduce the nation's budget deficits, we believe
additional resources are necessary to maintain the progress to
improving on-farm income, protecting our natural resources and
revitalizing rural communities.
Tumbleson-a corn farmer in Sherburn, Minnesota, and this year's
chairman of the association--received $883,240 in USDA subsidy
payments between 1995 and 2005 for corn and soybeans.
Steps on Conflict-of-Interest Reform
legislation has been introduced in Congress that would deter at
least some of the more common abuses that allow Members to vote for
benefits for themselves and for their families.
On January 22,
2007, the Senate passed the Legislative Transparency and
Accountability Act of 2007 (S. 1) by a vote of 96 to 2. The bill
would impose a number of new restrictions and prohibitions on
Member and staff relationships with lobbyists and future
employers and would prohibit certain types of earmarks. Section
404, "Prohibition on Financial Gain from Earmarks by Members,
Immediate Family of Members, Staff of Members, or Immediate Family
of Staff Members," would amend the Senate rules to require
No Member shall
use his official position to introduce, request, or otherwise
aid the progress or passage of a congressional earmark that will
financially benefit or otherwise further the pecuniary
interest of such Member, the spouse of such Member, the immediate
family member of such Member . . .
On January 5,
2007, the House of Representatives passed H. Res. 6 to amend
the rules that govern the House, including the earmarking
process. In what amounts to an indirect prohibition, H. Res. 6
requires a certification that neither the Member nor the Member's
spouse has a financial interest in the requested earmark.
Although not as strong or inclusive as the language in S. 1, it
does reflect a concern that such potential conflicts of interest by
Members are frowned upon and should at the least be exposed.
House Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 (H.R. 2316), the
House's most recent lobbying reform bill, was passed in May 2007
without any of the explicit prohibitions on conflicts of interest
that are included in S.1.
enactment of a bill similar to S.1 would make an important
contribution to cleaning up the ethical lapses that surround the
earmarking process and the lobbying industry, its tighter ethical
standards and conflict-of-interest provisions would cover only
earmarks in the federal budget, leaving the rest of the federal
budget and the hundreds of billions of dollars in spending free of
any prohibition on conflicts of interest and nepotism. This
begs the question of why strict ethics standards should apply to
one type of spending and not to another.
has no good reason to justify potential conflicts of interest in
one part of the budget but not in another, it should extend
the higher standards to all federal spending. The farm bill
reauthorization now before Congress would be a good place to
the Ethical Bar with the New Farm Bill
most efficient and equitable way to end these apparent conflicts of
interest is to end the USDA subsidy program. As many analysts have
noted, the federal farm program mostly rewards the largest and
wealthiest farmers, transfers money from taxpayers of average
incomes to farmers with above average incomes, increases food
prices for consumers, and distorts international trade patterns to
benefit a miniscule number of farmers who are protected by the
Congress nor the Administration would likely support such a
proposal, a number of interim alternative remedies could be adopted
that--even though they would leave in place all of the
inefficiencies and excess costs inherent in farm subsidies--would
at least enhance the integrity of congressional oversight of the
Disclosure and Vote Recusal. Members of Congress who
receive or whose family members receive USDA subsidies should be
required to recuse themselves from voting on any legislation that
perpetuates those subsidies. S. 1 established the principle
that Members of Congress should not benefit personally from
the specific components included in any spending legislation, and
the recusal requirement would extend that principle to Members who
receive USDA subsidies or whose family members receive subsidies.
Moreover, Members should be required to include the receipt of USDA
farm subsidies on their annual financial disclosure statements.
Payment Refusal. Some Members may object to the recusal
requirement on the grounds that recusing themselves from key farm
bill votes would prevent them from serving the interests of their
constituents, who elected them in the belief that they would fight
for, if not enlarge, USDA subsidies. To the extent that this
justifies refusing to recuse themselves from such votes, the
subsidy-receiving Members should pledge that neither they nor the
members of their immediate families will apply for or accept
Members should be
required to identify all such relatives that would otherwise
receive USDA subsidies. If family members refuse to comply,
the Member should agree to report that refusal and the amount
of money involved to the appropriate congressional
administrative offices, which would publish the information on
Transparency. Prior to voting on any bill that provides
subsidies to farmers, Members should be required to report the
extent to which they and their immediate families will receive USDA
subsidies from any legislation before Congress. Such reports should
identify the programs and the amounts of money involved.
moving in fits and starts to enhance its standards of ethical
conduct and has made some progress, although many Members of
Congress continue to promote measures of less transparency,
not more. As a consequence of past earmark excesses
and lobbying abuses, the public and media are now more attuned to
the potential for congressional ethical lapses and will now likely
direct their concern to other programs, including the farm
bill now working its way through Congress. If this occurs, Congress
could use some combination of the foregoing three
recommendations to accommodate voters' legitimate concerns.
Ronald D. Utt,
Ph.D., is Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research
Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies
at The Heritage Foundation.
 Brian M. Riedl,
"Another Year at the Federal Trough: Farm Subsidies for the Rich,
Famous, and Elected Jumped Again in 2002," Heritage Foundation
Backgrounder No. 1763, May 24, 2004, at www.heritage.org/Research/Budget/bg1763.cfm.
 See Environmental
Working Group, Farm Bill 2007 Policy Analysis Database, at www.ewg.org (June 14, 2007).
 Among them are
Cal Dooley, Charles Stenholm, members of the Pombo family, Earl
Ravenal, and Mike DeWine.
 For the message
that the National Corn Growers Association urges its members to
send to Congress, see National Corn Growers Association,
Legislative Action Center, "Support Funding for Farm, Food and
Conservation Programs," 2007, at http://capwiz.com/ncga/issues/alert/?
alertid=9431641 (June 14, 2007).
 H. Res. 6, 110th
Cong., 1st Sess., Section 404(b).
 As defined by
Standing Rules of the Senate, Rule XXXVII, 15(b)(1), as amended by
S. 1, 110th Cong., 1st Sess., Section 404.