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Once Again, Obama’s USDA Less Transparent than Bush’s

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The ballooning national debt and Tea Party pressure has members of Congress running in the halls with their budget-cutting scissors in hand. The Senate Agriculture Committee is no exception. This Thursday morning, the senators convened a hearing billed as focusing on:

… measuring the performance of every agriculture program, fighting fraud, eliminating duplication and waste, and cutting red tape for farmers.

It’s convenient for the committee that the Environmental Working Group released on the same day the latest update of its farm subsidy database, which has been searched 250 million times since it debuted in 2004.

We hope they’ll notice that despite lawmakers’ boasts of enacting major reforms in the 2008 farm bill, the new data clearly show that wealthy absentee land owners and mega farms awash in record income are once again the main beneficiaries of federal farm programs – while struggling family farmers go begging.

And once again, the database shows that many farm subsidy recipients get those fat government checks at addresses in New York City, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles – not exactly farm country, and a far cry from the programs’ original intent.

Compounding the bad news, under President Obama the US Department of Agriculture has again sharply limited the data that EWG receives under the Freedom of Information Act in order to assemble the database and identify the real winners of farm subsidy largesse. It’s those data that has allowed EWG to follow the money and exposed the gross inequities in federal spending that enable the big agricultural operations to come away with the most generous haul of taxpayer dollars.

In 2007, the USDA under former President Bush released previously unavailable records that allowed EWG’s database to uncover nearly 500,000 farm subsidy recipients whose identities had previously been shielded by byzantine mazes of co-ops and corporate shell games. The database revealed, for example, that Florida real estate developer Maurice Wilder, reportedly worth $500 million, was pulling in almost $1 million a year in farm subsidies for corn farms he owns in several states.

In 2010 and now 2011, however, the USDA has refused to release the data that provided this revelatory accounting of just who receives the billions paid out under the maze of federal farm programs.

In preparing for Thursday’s hearing, the Senate Agriculture Committee said that it would be focusing on the accountability and effectiveness of farm programs:

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of the Inspector General (USDA OIG) issued a report detailing its fraud prevention efforts in programs under its jurisdiction, including food assistance programs. USDA OIG's report shows that in the last six months it has conducted successful investigations and audits that led to 516 arrests, 249 convictions, $47.8 million in recoveries and restitutions, 114 program improvement recommendations, and $11.1 million in financial recommendations across all initiatives under USDA purview, including 80 convictions and $7.9 million in monetary results in food assistance programs.
The Agriculture Committee's hearing on accountability will examine all areas in the committee's jurisdiction, including food assistance programs.

Targeting fraud and abuse in any government program is smart policy, and good politics. Federal money is increasingly scarce, and it should go to those that need it – such as poor women and children who depend on federal food and nutrition programs to get enough to eat. But the farm bill’s awkwardly assembled family of sibling programs – including nutrition assistance, farm subsidies and agricultural support – makes for intense rivalries, especially in tough economic times. The subsidy lobby that jealously guards the lavish payments to commodity crop growers finds it easy to stand by quietly while nutrition programs suffer sharp cuts while working feverishly to keep the spotlight off of the largesse of farm subsidy payments.

The outcome of these battles is easy to predict. The Senate Ag Committee members are unlikely to benefit personally or politically from federal nutrition programs for the poor. But as the EWG Farm Subsidy Database made clear, the committee’s members largely represent states with robust farm subsidy hauls, commodity crop payments to the states represented by the Senate Agriculture committee totaled $3.38 billion 2010. House Agriculture Committee Member Districts pulled in $1.99 billion in commodity crop subsidies in 2010.

Speaking of the House side, Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) is also beating the accountability drum.

We will examine how we are spending money, where the money is going, and whether the goals of each program are being met. We will look for duplication within issue areas to determine program overlap. We will scrutinize waste, fraud and abuse, and look for ways to build on the success USDA has already achieved.

We have an obligation to taxpayers to ensure our resources are being spent wisely.

But like beauty, what constitutes wise spending is in the eye of the beholder, and the makeup of the House Agriculture Committee’s membership, with its base firmly in states that are home to commodity crop growers, leaves little doubt where its priorities lie.

If the committee takes its cue from the House GOP leadership’s budget bill, which took aim at a wide variety of nutrition assistance efforts, programs like Know Your Farmer Know Your Food will be in peril.

The bill forces USDA to report to Congress every time officials travel to promote the department's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program, which supports locally grown food, and discourages the department from giving research grants to support local food systems. Large agribusiness has been critical of the department's focus on these smaller food producers.

And for those concerned with soil erosion, water quality and the effectiveness of conservation programs authorized through the farm bill, there is a severe lack of transparency there, too.

All sides trumpet their insistence on accountability and “wise” spending, but somehow those priorities never seems to include transparency or equity. It’s long past time for America’s food and farm programs benefit all citizens, not just a handful of wealthy agribusiness churning out the raw material for an unhealthy food system. If Congress can’t manage to take a hard-nosed look at the skewed spending priorities of these programs, as well as the administration’s reluctance to identify the biggest winners of the government’s largesse, then taxpayers and eaters need to demand it.

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