Reintroduction of commodity checkoff reform legislation aims to end program corruption
WASHINGTON — Yesterday, Sept. 27, Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Cory Booker, D-N.J., Elizabeth Warren, D-Maine, Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., filed the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act (OFF Act), which would implement crucial reform for commodity promotion (checkoff) programs, long plagued by corruption. The OFF Act supports independent farmers and ranchers by improving transparency, prohibiting lobbying, reining in conflicts of interest, and putting a stop to anti-competitive activities within these programs.
In addition, Sens. Lee and Paul filed the Voluntary Checkoff Program Participation Act, which goes a step further than the OFF Act by allowing commodity producers to participate in checkoff programs on a voluntary, rather than mandatory, basis while still offering a government mechanism to pool resources for research and promotion.
Introduced originally in the 115th Congress and again in the 116th, these bills would provide long-overdue reform to checkoff programs. In a November 2017 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found USDA’s oversight of checkoff programs insufficient, raising concerns that the agency does not routinely review checkoff program subcontracts or independent economic evaluations. GAO also noted a lack of transparency due to the failure of checkoff boards to report program information.
Lax oversight by the USDA has resulted in collusive and illegal relationships between checkoff boards and lobbying organizations to influence legislation and government action — despite a broad statutory prohibition against these activities. Such anti-competitive advocacy efforts benefit certain producers to the detriment of others and force independent farmers and ranchers to pay into a system that actively works against them.
“For far too long, farmers and ranchers have been forced to pay into these programs only to see their dollars go to trade and lobbying organizations that work against their very existence. USDA has failed to act, so it’s time for Congress to step in and do what’s right for family farmers and ranchers,” said Joe Maxwell, president of Family Farm Action Alliance.
In the 115th Congress, over 102 farm and food organizations voiced their support for the OFF Act to be included in the 2018 farm bill. Family Farm Action Alliance has long advocated for policy changes to reform the checkoff system, and will continue urging the USDA and Congress to curb the corruption or end the system altogether.
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