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This was going to be the year Big Ag would finally lose. Though they flattened their opponents in 2002, the last time a farm bill was shepherded through Congress, traditional commodities interests such as corn, cotton, and wheat growers faced a far broader coalition of opponents than ever before. Organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Club for Growth, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and Oxfam were at the core of a big-tent alliance initially organized with a little help from Hogan & Hartson’s Clayton Yeutter, a former Republican National Committee chairman and secretary of agriculture. Through the alliance’s ideological patchwork ran a common thread — a desire to weaken the stranglehold the commodities had on billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies. “Odd bedfellows can be very powerful in this town,” says Taxpayers for Common Sense’s Steve Ellis, adding that the widely perceived victory of Big Ag in the last farm bill left would-be reformers with a sense that they could have done better. “Everybody recognized we got our clocks cleaned in 2002,” Ellis says of the last farm bill. “We got outmaneuvered by two cotton farmers from Texas.” Those “cotton farmers” were on the Hill when the last bill was passed, and they haven’t gone far. One, Larry Combest (R-Texas), the former chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, represents associations such as the American Sugar Alliance ($700,000 in overall spending between January and July) and the USA Rice Association ($260,000) through his firm, Combest, Sell & Associates. The other, former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas), is with Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz, which lobbies on behalf of traditional agricultural interests such as the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Co-op ($120,000), as well as groups like the Organic Trade Association and the School Nutrition Association. “I’ve been very fortunate here at [Olsson Frank] in that I’ve been able to do what I did for 26 years in Congress,” says Stenholm. That’s brokering farm bills. And while there is still a chance to force concessions in conference and to lobby for an administration veto, there’s no denying that the farm bills that came out of the House and Senate look a lot more like the bill Stenholm and Combest put together in 2002 than the radical reduction in farm subsidies so many reformers hoped to force this time around. “The folks who wanted it revolutionary each had a separate idea of what the revolution was about,” Stenholm says. One key point in the farm bill’s formulation came in late July, when Agricultural Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) put together the package that broke a House deadlock. As participants recall, the lobbying furor had peaked the weekend before, with Peterson’s staff working closely with Big Ag interests to find revenue for the nutrition, conservation, and fresh produce programs that they knew were essential to garnering support from representatives in urban and Western districts. “Most of these folks, we’ve known them for years and years and years,” says Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy at the National Corn Growers’ Association. According to Stenholm, one of the legislation’s most effective advocates was the National Farmers Union. The group’s Democratic bona fides were a plus, but in Peterson’s estimation, price supports for commodities were never really at risk in the House.
Key Players in the Commodities Fight
Lobbyist Role
Charlie Stenholm Former top Democrat on the House Ag Committee lobbies for Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz.
Larry Combest Former top Republican on the House Ag Committee now at Combest, Sell & Associates.
Scott Farber Grocery Manufacturers Association lobbyist works with environmental groups against subsidies.
Clayton Yeutter Former secretary of agriculture and RNC chairman helped bring reformers together.
Robert Guenther Top lobbyist for the United Fresh Produce Association makes peace with commodities interests.
Source: Legal Times reporting and lobbying disclosure statements.

“It became pretty apparent to me that there was going to be a big attempt to go after the commodity title, so I laid the marker down pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to happen,” Peterson said in a speech to the Farm Journal Bureau last week. That doesn’t mean reformers didn’t try. In both the House and Senate, reformers tried to divert the largesse away from Big Ag and toward conservation, social programs, and fresh produce growers. In the Senate last week the effort garnered a surprisingly strong 37 votes, a showing that Hogan’s Yeutter believes will empower the Bush administration in an expected conference-time showdown with Big Ag. “There are a few innings left in this game,” he says. While the agriculture industry has so far managed to hold its ground, another industry hasn’t: crop insurance. Pat Borowski, who worked on the bill for the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents, recalls that the industry had been informed months in advance that it was going to face a hit for purely budgetary reasons. “We understand that, in the farm bill, we are not the primary constituency,” she says. Compounding the industry’s problems was a 2005 Government Accountability Office report finding that the insurers were taking obscene government-sponsored profits, a conclusion that groups like the American Association of Crop Insurers have bitterly assaulted as methodologically flawed. Even if none of the commodities associations wished the insurance industry ill, however, its misfortune freed up billions of dollars to fund programs that would lure nutrition, conservation, and fresh produce interests to their side. The strategy worked. By late September, groups like the Food Research and Action Center, the National Education Association, and the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance had signed on with groups like the National Corn Growers and the National Cotton Council in a letter urging the Senate to “support expedited action on the farm bill.” “They were sort of bought off,” says Ellis of former allies he declines to name. But he’s proud that the original strength of the coalition drove press coverage and forced Big Ag to scramble to make deals. “We certainly won in the hearts and minds of editorial boards,” he says. Stenholm’s not convinced that’s a sign of any weakness in the agriculture industry so much as it shows other groups’ growing sense of how to get in on the action. In the wake of the 2002 farm bill, he says, fresh produce and specialty crop interests came to him to complain that they’d gotten the short end of the stick. “I said, you’re right, but you never came to the House Agricultural Committee with a unified proposal,” he recalls. “To their credit, this time they did.”


Jeff Horwitz can be contacted at [email protected].

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