Members of Congress say they want to help small farmers. In some cases, that includes themselves.
About two dozen members of Congress are also farmers, a profession long revered in American culture and politics. But as lawmakers prepare to dole out hundreds of billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies in the 2023 farm bill, government watchdogs warn that being a farmer could also present a conflict of interest — particularly for those members of Congress who take government subsidies, as multiple lawmakers who sit on the House committee that writes the farm bill do.
Unlike lawmakers’ stock trading, which some members have pushed to ban, the agricultural incentives have received little scrutiny from colleagues on Capitol Hill — something one watchdog group chalks up to farmers’ political cachet.
“We don’t treat any other industries like agriculture,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, a left-leaning advocacy group that tracks Agriculture Committee members’ farm subsidies. “There’s this myth that farmers face risks that are different from barbers and restaurant owners. It’s based mostly in nostalgia and not in economic reality.”
The group wants to stop federal farm subsidies intended for farmers from flowing to lawmakers. And some liberals in Congress agree.
“It’s a conflict of interest. It’s ridiculous,” Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib said in an interview. “Same thing about owning stock while you’re voting for wars. You basically benefit every time we make more bombs.”
But former Chair Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), who still serves on the agricultural panel, defended the subsidies he has received for the wheat farm and cattle ranch he runs with his wife. He pointed to the history of the practice as well as the realities of farming.
“Since the 1930s, members of Congress have been able to participate in farm programs,” Lucas said. He added that unlike lawmakers who come from other occupations, farmers can’t easily put their businesses on ice while they serve in Washington.
“It’s one thing to turn off your professional business, another to be able to turn it back on,” he said. “But once you give up your farm, it might never be possible to restart.”
Lucas has received more than $100,000 in federal subsidies over the past 20 years, EWG wrote in a report updated in March.
Lawmakers and government ethics experts were divided on whether the practice poses a problem — a lack of consensus that reflects just how murky conflict of interest standards remain on Capitol Hill, despite a series of scandals in recent years. At the very least, government watchdogs agreed lawmakers’ farm subsidies deserve more scrutiny, particularly as they make policy decisions this year that could ultimately benefit their own ag businesses.
“It raises the obvious question of whether the farmer-lawmakers are using their inside connections for more favorable treatment, or have passed legislation that favors their own class of farmers,” said Craig Holman, a Capitol Hill lobbyist for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.
But Agriculture Committee member Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who sponsored 2022 legislation to ban stock trading among members of Congress, said differences exist between lawmakers using confidential information to boost investment payouts and lawmakers participating in farm subsidy programs.
The Virginia centrist equated it, instead, to members of Congress taking Paycheck Protection Program loans, a Covid-era loan program meant to stave off layoffs and small business closures.
“I do think that’s probably in the [vein of the] question of, ‘if members of Congress are voting on PPP, and they have small businesses, should they be taking PPP?’” Spanberger said. “That’s different than, ‘I have knowledge because I’m a member of Congress, I buy the stock today, it goes up tomorrow, I’ve made money that you couldn’t make.’”
A number of lawmakers did draw scrutiny for receiving PPP loans, which raised concerns about conflicts of interest as Congress crafted subsequent Covid-19 relief packages. Democrats also accused some of their GOP colleagues of hypocrisy for voting against the initial federal funding for the loans but receiving PPP loans for their own businesses.
The farm bill is a massive piece of legislation, costing more than $1 trillion, that Congress uses to fund agricultural programs. More than 80 percent of the bill’s spending is delegated to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a food assistance program that helps millions of low-income Americans. But it also directs billions of dollars to other programs, including ones that help farmers conserve resources, fight climate change or cope with disasters or falling commodity prices.
In addition to Lucas, EWG reported in March that seven other current members of Congress who sit on the House Agriculture Committee have received farm subsidies between 1995 and 2021: Reps. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), Jim Costa (D-Calif.), Austin Scott (R-Ga.), Jim Baird (R-Ind.), John Rose (R-Tenn.), Mary Miller (R-Ill.) and Tracey Mann (R-Kan.).
Those will be “enmeshed” in the development of the farm bill and the creation of the formulas that determine future subsidy payouts, Faber said. And given that spending in the next farm bill is expected to be flat, boosting subsidies would require cuts to other major programs.
While both Lucas and Rose acknowledged to POLITICO that they have received subsidies, Costa and Scott disputed the data in the report. “Congressman Scott does not own any farms and has not held ownership of any farms in several years,” his spokesperson said.
Baird, Miller, Mann and LaMalfa did not respond to requests for comment.
Rose defended his subsidies in a statement to POLITICO, saying that “most farmers can’t compete without participating in these government programs,” given their impact on agricultural markets.
“Participating [in] and a firsthand understanding of these programs is not a ‘conflict of interest,’” Rose continued. “It’s real-world experience and knowledge of how these programs work that is being applied to policies.”
The vast majority of the subsidies go to major agribusinesses, which dominate the $165 billion farming industry in the United States. Congress’ farmers, in contrast, primarily own small family farms, continuing an American political tradition that dates back to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. That tradition is one that today’s farmer-lawmakers are eager to tie themselves to.
In a release introducing the GOP members of the House Agriculture Committee earlier this year, the panel’s press office noted that Lucas and his wife “run a cow-calf and wheat operation in western Oklahoma on farmland that’s been in his family for more than 120 years,” while Rose “owns an 8th-generation family farm, founded in 1790 before Tennessee became a state.”
LaMalfa, meanwhile, slams green subsidies for carbon sequestration in agriculture spending by saying it would never work on his family’s Northern California rice farm. And Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) likes to refer to himself as a third-generation “dirt farmer,” while tweeting images — some wholesome, some rather graphic — from his grain farm and butcher shop in Big Sandy, Mont. One of Tester’s defining physical features is his seven fingers; he lost three in that butcher shop when he was a boy.
Despite their relatively small scale, lawmakers’ farms can still prove to be a significant financial asset, LaMalfa disclosed in his most recent financial disclosure that his 33 percent stake in his family’s rice farm was worth between $1 million and $5 million dollars. According to EWG’s data, LaMalfa’s family farm has collected $5.5 million in commodity subsidies since 1995.
At least one farmer in Congress said he has purposefully tried to avoid taking subsidies, with a nod to the potential conflicts that could arise. Costa, a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee, told POLITICO that the roughly $1,000 in subsidy payments documented in the EWG report did not go to his Central Valley almond farm but rather to the Lena E. Costa Living Trust, a property and estate owned by his mother.
“Since coming to Congress and serving on the House Agriculture Committee, I have not taken farm subsidies or other federal aid,” Costa said. “It’s critical that the American people trust their representatives to make decisions based on the best information available and not for personal gain.”
Walter Shaub, a former head of the Office of Government Ethics who clashed with the Trump White House over its conflicts of interest, said in an email that lawmakers who choose to take agriculture subsidies are benefitting from Congress’ lax ethics rules.
“If they were executive branch employees, participating in a benefits or welfare program for farmers like this would be a crime for someone receiving payments,” said Shaub, now a senior ethics fellow at the nonpartisan nonprofit watchdog group Project on Government Oversight. “But there are no meaningful conflict of interest laws applicable to members of Congress. They know it’s wrong, which is why they criminalized it for executive branch employees, but members of Congress have always held themselves above the law.”
Other watchdogs had more nuanced views.
Holman, of Public Citizen, said in an interview that if the farm subsidy laws that members help write “are not favoring their own class of farmers, then this does not pose a special conflict of interest.”
Campaign Legal Center Vice President Kedric Payne had an even more lenient interpretation. “When it comes to members voting on bills that are tied to their personal assets, the general rule … is you can vote on legislation that impacts you if it impacts you as part of a class,” Payne told POLITICO. “So if you are voting on these farm subsidies, and the subsidies impact all farmers, then that’s OK.”
That said, if the lawmaker’s farm is the only one that has the capacity or scale to benefit from a subsidy they’re pushing, then it could be a conflict, Payne said.
Members of Congress were equally conflicted.
“Our whole system is so fricken messed up, with so many subsidies going to every human being under the planet,” said Texas Republican Chip Roy, Spanberger’s partner on the stock ban effort. “At the end of the day for me, stock trading is pretty clear. … There are things we can do, but you own your own family farm, we’ve got this whole system created around it, like what are we gonna do, we’re gonna make people divest themselves from the farm?”