Sushi aid in $1 trillion agriculture bill angers watchdogs

Checkoff Programs

Other provisions in the farm bill allow commodities to create so-called checkoff programs in which producers of a commodity are levied a fee to promote a product in campaigns such as “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.” In such programs, government expenses are minimal because the industry self-finances.

The question, Josh Sewell, a senior policy analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, a group that advocates less federal spending, is whether the government has better things to do.

“If a private industry wants to put together a program, we have freedom of association in this country, they can come up with a program and do it. I don’t know if the government has to give its attention to ‘The other white meat,’’’ he said, referring to a pork-industry promotion campaign.

Promotion programs in the House bill include Christmas trees and natural stone. In the case of stone, a checkoff has been a goal of the industry since 2012, according to the Marble Institute of America, which outlines its strategy for government support on its website.

‘Very Transparent’

“If the goal is more consumer advocacy of our great product, you should utilize the tools you have available,” said Jim Hieb, chief executive officer of the Marble Institute, a Cleveland-based trade association that spearheaded the drive for the stone checkoff. “We’re very transparent about it.”

Lobbying expenses by agriculture interests increased to $138 million last year from $112 million in 2007, the year before the last farm bill passed, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks spending on lobbying. Agriculture-industry employees spent $91 million on the 2012 elections, up from $70 million in 2008.

“It’s such a big bill there’s something for everyone,” said Sewell, of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “I don’t understand why we have this paternalistic attitude toward ag.”

The Senate bill is S. 954. The House bill is H.R. 1947.

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