INSIDE ORGANIC: Controversial Congressional “Oink Oink” Funding Process Is Potential Source of More Organic Program Support (May/June 08)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · May/June 2008

After doing well in a long campaign to increase support for organic agriculture in the farm bill, organic advocates are looking ahead to USDA implementation of programs with newly mandated funding and the annual push to convince lawmakers who appropriate money annually to do more to provide a “fair share” for organic programs.

Requests have already been submitted by the National Organic Coalition, the Organic Trade Association and others to the Appropriations subcommittees that determine program funding levels for USDA for the year that starts October 1, 2008. Unfortunately the deciders in the appropriations process are unlikely to be too impressed with the requested higher “authorized” spending levels, organic “fair share” promises, or “green” provisions Agriculture Committee members added to the new farm bill.

Farm bill provisions mandating annual funding for programs like certification cost share and some newly authorized initiatives represent real gains over the next five years in support for organic agriculture. But there are no fair share guarantees beyond that. Organic advocates will have to continue to organize, as in the past, to build support for small year-to-year increases in appropriations in categories “authorized” but not “mandated” by the new farm legislation.

Now is a good time to acknowledge that the traditional and reasonably accessible annual appropriations process organic supporters participate in, and the one described in high school civics classes, is not the process that provides all the money appropriated every year. The budget sent to Capitol Hill by the president for funding of USDA and other federal departments and agencies, contrary to what many assume, is not where all the action is.

The rest of the action involves the earmarks process, which is controlled by powerful appropriations committee members in both the House and Senate and shamelessly used for pet projects by nearly all lawmakers. It provides a flow of funding out the back door that bypasses hearings and debate and other requirements of the formal appropriations process. This back door funding, lampooned as a pigs at the trough system, provided $17.2 billion for 11,610 earmarks in 2008. This was down from the high of $30 billion in 2006.

Earmarks Get Bad Press

Earmarks are under constant media attack as wasteful and out of control and some have been linked to Capitol Hill scandals. Appropriations committees are increasingly viewed on Capitol Hill as “favor factories.” Committee members have become increasingly defensive about “oink oink” headlines and late night jokes on television about dubious projects. And Citizens Against Government Waste has just issued its latest “pig book,” an annual report that skewers earmarks and generates critical headlines.

President Bush took after earmarks in his last State of the Union address and, like others before him, called for presidential line item veto authority. However, unless he wants to veto an entire appropriations bill, which is highly unlikely, he has no authority to slow or stop this pork barrel process. It has strong backing from influential lawmakers in both political parties, and the last thing they want is a president with authority to veto earmarks.

The earmarks process that siphons off huge amounts of money every year for everything from studies of cow flatulence to the famous Alaskan bridge to nowhere has received little attention from organic advocates. The chances are slim to none that this back door process will ever be eliminated or cut back, a conclusion supported by the recent 71-29 Senate vote killing a proposed one-year moratorium on earmarks. This suggests the time has come for organic supporters to seriously consider going after an organic fair share of the thousands of pork projects slipped into appropriations bills to help lawmakers bring home the “bacon.”

Earmarks add up to really serious money. A Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis report last month stated that earmark spending for 2008 will exceed the appropriated discretionary funding for five entire federal government departments and agencies, including Commerce, Interior, Labor, Treasury, and the Environmental Protection Agency. But these stunning numbers are not a deterrent. It has been reported that so many last-minute earmark requests for 2009 flowed into the House Appropriations Committee to meet a deadline earlier this year that its web site froze up and the deadline had to be extended.

While organic advocates are working hard to convince the appropriations committees that the National Organic Program should have an extra $2 million or so in the coming year for more enforcement and fewer delays in proposing new rules, a single earmark for a visitors center or a new courthouse can siphon off as much money as it costs to operate the entire NOP for a year.

Organic Projects Missing

Although earmarks decisions are made behind closed doors and information is still sketchy and difficult to access, a review of several available lists shows organic projects benefiting from earmarks are few and far between. There is an earmark for an organic farming education initiative at Washington State University, for example, and another for an organic vegetable research initiative at a federal research station in California. The small number of organic project earmarks strongly suggests organic advocates lack a strategy for accessing the earmark process and making the case for a fair share.

A much-criticized sector that would appear to offer organic funding possibilities is colleges and universities. The Chronicle of Higher Education, in a report published last month, said Congress approved 2,306 earmarks totaling $3.2 billion for higher education this year. This respected publication complained that colleges and universities submitting grant proposals that fail federal agency reviews and are turned down for funding simply go to home state lawmakers to get the rejected proposals funded with earmarks.

Minnesota colleges and universities, for example, received $18.1 million in earmarks this year for 19 academic pork projects sponsored by six of the state’s Senate and House members. The only one with organic content was a $219,453 earmark to the University of Minnesota for its Uniform Farm Management Program. A small amount of this earmark funds some organic farmer participation in the program’s data gathering initiative.

The potential for accessing the earmarks system is greatest in states represented by powerful appropriations committee members. Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin is chairman of the House appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful positions in Congress, and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin and Tom Harkin of Iowa are senior Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee members in the Senate. Although both states have done well with earmarks, few have provided support for organic agriculture

An exception is a Kohl earmark that has helped fund a UW Extension Emerging Agriculture Markets Team project that included an initiative implemented by Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services. This joint multi-year MOSES-EAM project has provided funding for a series of “Organic Basics” workshops and publication and distribution to Wisconsin Extension offices of an Organic Production and Certification Manual.

Organic earmarks also can become controversial. Several lawmakers, in a rare earmarks challenge, are sponsoring legislation to rescind more than $2 million in earmarks for Berkeley, California, hidden in the 2008 Omnibus Appropriations bill. One provides $243,000 to Chez Panisse, ranked recently by Gourmet Magazine as the second best restaurant in America, to create organic school lunches in the Berkeley School District. Although bringing organic foods into schools is certainly a concept worthy of support, the bill’s sponsors have had a field day slamming Chez Panisse menus featuring “Compte Cheese Souffle with mache salad,” “Meyer lemon eclairs with huckleberry coulis,” and “chicory salad with creamy anchovy vinaigrette and olive toast.”

Earmark Process Allows ‘Riders’

In addition to siphoning off billions from the traditional Congressional appropriations process, this back door system has opened the door to riders that have directly threatened organic integrity. The Organic Foods Production Act, for example, has been amended several times in industry-sponsored riders buried in appropriations bills. This was done with no notice to farmers and consumers, no access to amendment language, no public hearings, and no debate.

These additions, known on Capitol Hill as “air drops,” are usually made late at night in conference committee reports. Earmarks provide backers of controversial changes that would not stand a chance under normal appropriations procedures to use the earmarks process to sneak dubious amendments through Congress. Almost every change made in OFPA has come from these back door attacks by special interests and all were aimed at weakening standards.

The first rider, hidden in the FY 2003 War Supplemental Appropriations Conference Report and pushed through for organic wine makers, relaxed sulfite standards. Another, hidden in an appropriations bill by an Alaska senator, ordered USDA to come up with an organic label for wild salmon.

The third, which set off a firestorm when organic advocates were tipped off that it was hidden in the l400-page FY 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Conference Report, would have set aside the 100% organic feed requirement for poultry. This poultry feed rider, proposed by an organic poultry company, embarrassed the House speaker who had intervened on behalf of the Georgia lawmaker who proposed it. Roughed-up House leaders had the controversial rider rescinded several months later in a War Supplemental Appropriations bill.

Some organic advocates prefer a hands-off approach to earmarks, contend earmark money is tainted, and feel organic supporters should push to strengthen the traditional appropriations process and get rid of earmarks altogether. But some ethics changes adopted last year aimed at requiring members to disclose when they steer earmarked funding to pet projects may make the earmarks process somewhat more acceptable. More lawmakers also are accepting earmark applications from both lobbyists and people back home.

There is no good reason why organic research and education proposals should not have the same opportunity as visitor centers and courthouses to compete for earmark funding. Organic agriculture supporters on Capitol Hill should be challenged to do more to solicit organic earmark proposals and to deliver organic specific earmarks. At least $15 billion, and probably more, will be handed out every year in a process that may be opened up more but is not going away. The time has come to start going after a fair share for organic agriculture

by Roger Blobaum

This article was first printed in the May/Junet 2008 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service