Last Minute Farm Bill Earmarks

The wildly popular, bipartisan farm bill is cruising toward becoming law this week after the likely road bump of President Bush’s veto pen. It passed the House and Senate by veto-proof margins last week. Congressional enthusiasm for the farm bill helps to explain the 18 percent approval rating of Congress in a recent Gallup poll.

Taxpayers aren’t likely to be impressed by a $500 million giveaway for a timber company and other wasteful earmarks in the bill. The official list of earmarks total $934.5 million (not including the $500 million timber tax break or six earmarks authorized without specific funding levels). The earmarks were air-dropped into the bill’s conference report, after legislators spent years — and held countless hearings — crafting it.

Fourteen senators (nine Democrats and five Republicans) and one House Democrat inserted 26 earmarks, according to the conference report. Three earmarks appear to be multi-member earmarks. [Here’s the PDF of the earmarks.]

The earmarks represent only one-third of one percent of the bill’s expected cost ($289 billion). Legislators will soon issue laudatory press releases patting themselves on the back for rewarding their districts and deflecting criticism by pointing out the “low” cost of earmarks. That’s not the point. The sneaky way the earmarks were inserted and the inefficiency of the federal government doling out money for local projects (also an affront to federalism) helps explain why the public has lost faith in Congress.

Earmark critics also point to several provisions in the farm bill not disclosed as earmarks. The Associated Press briefly described these giveaways to favored companies and industries.

Perhaps most egregious is a vague provision inserted by Baucus which would authorize $500 million in tax-credit bonds to purchase 400,000 acres of land (mostly in Montana). Although not mentioned in the bill, there’s only one company that would qualify for this stealth earmark: the Plum Creek Timber Co., which is the largest private landowner in the United States.

Plum Creek’s in-house lobbying operation spent $1.1 million on lobbying from 2005 to 2007, according to Congressional lobbying records rounded to the nearest $20,000. The company spent $140,000 in the first quarter of 2008, the most recent period records are available.

Plum Creek also hired the lobbying firm Nutter & Harris to lobby Congress for the provision and other issues from 2006 to 2008. Firm principal Robert L. Harris, a former Senate staffer, handled the Plum Creek account. Plum Creek paid the firm $300,000 ($120,000 in 2006 and 2007 and $60,000 in the first quarter of 2008).

In the 2006 cycle, Baucus received $9,000 from Plum Creek’s PAC (the Plum Creek Timber Good Government Fund), run by Robert Jirsa, the company’s in-house lobbyist. The PAC gave Baucus $1,000 in the 2004 cycle and $5,000 in the 2002 cycle. It has doled out $511,266 since 1998 to parties and candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The PAC favored Republican federal candidates until they lost the majority in 2006. Their 2008 cycle donations favor Democrats (60 percent to 40 percent).

All told, that’s roughly a $2 million investment over nearly ten years ($1.4 million in lobbying and $500,000 in PAC contributions) for a windfall tax break of $500 million.

House Republican Leader John Boehner criticized the earmarks in the farm bill, but his warning proved insufficient to stop most Republicans from voting for the bloated bill. It’s a victory for bipartisan, logrolling politics as usual. It’s a defeat for conservative Republicans who tried to convince leadership and rank-and-file members to take a stand on the farm bill as part of an effort to return to conservative fiscal principles after years of out-of-control spending and earmark scandals.

To read previous posts on the farm bill by Sallie James, Cato’s expert on the topic, click here.