Checkoff program reform legislation filed in U.S. House of Representatives
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congresswoman Dina Titus, Nev.-01, introduced the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act in the U.S. House of Representatives.
This legislation is the companion bill to S.935, filed in 2019 by U.S. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Cory Booker, D-N.J., Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. The OFF Act would put an end to the most egregious abuses committed by the boards and contractors of the federally mandated commodity checkoff programs.
Checkoff programs have been instrumental in the history of agricultural advertising. Famous campaigns, such as “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner,” have been paid for with farmers’ checkoff tax dollars. However, checkoff programs have fallen under the control of commodity trade organizations representing global agribusiness interests, and oftentimes the millions of dollars paid into checkoff programs by hard-working farmers and ranchers end up being used to lobby for policies that harm their interests.
Organization for Competitive Markets issued the following statement:
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“Organization for Competitive Markets extends our gratitude to Congresswoman Titus for sponsoring this legislation. The evidence is clear: commodity checkoff programs abuse the very farmers and ranchers who are mandated to pay into them. The over $850 million these programs take from farmers each year are a cash cow for organizations that work against fair competition and market transparency. As long as checkoff funds remain hidden from accountability and in the hands of trade and lobbying groups, independent family agriculture is in peril of being wiped from the face of the countryside. It is imperative that this legislation be passed and signed into law.”
For over five years, OCM has waged a FOIA lawsuit challenging the United States Department of Agriculture and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s refusal to disclose beef checkoff spending records. OCM took action following an independent audit of the program that found gross misuse of funds by the NCBA, using checkoff funds for expenses including spousal travel, policy work and golf tournaments.
Recent reports demonstrating executives at Dairy Management Inc. are being paid exorbitant salaries out of dairy checkoff funds while dairy farmers are being driven out of business in record numbers makes it even more urgent Congress take action to clean up these programs.
Farmers are struggling amidst increasing consolidation, low commodity prices, and excess supply. Net farm income is at a 19-year low. Along with recent trade disruptions and natural disasters, such as the flooding in the Midwest, the last thing farmers want, or need, is their tax dollars working against them.
The OFF Act would prohibit trade organizations that lobby from receiving checkoff funds; however, this restriction does not apply to universities. It would rein in conflicts of interest and stop anticompetitive activities that harm other commodities and consumers. It would also force checkoff programs to publish their budgets and undergo periodic audits so that farmers and ranchers know where their hard-earned tax dollars are going.
The major reform provisions of the OFF Act, which would end the glaring abuses of the program boards, are:
1. Stop federally mandated checkoff dollars from being transferred to parties that seek to influence government policies or action relating to agriculture issues.
2. Enforce the prohibition against conflicts of interest in contracting and all other decision-making operations of the checkoff program.
3. Stop federally mandated funds from being used for anticompetitive programs or from being spent to disparage another commodity in the marketplace.
4. Increase transparency of the individual boards’ acTtions by shedding light on how federal checkoff funds are spent and the purpose of their expenditures.
5. Require audits of each program every five years to ensure their activities are in compliance with the law. ❖
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