Courtesy Architect of the Capitol
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Several agricultural organizations have gotten language included in the pending fiscal year 2017 House Agricultural Appropriations Bill asking USDA to exempt research and promotion boards funded by grower checkoff fees from federal public records law.
Critics of the move call it “underhanded.”
“I guess they want it both ways. They defend the programs on the basis that it is government speech overseen by the secretary of agriculture, but now are claiming it is private and these are producer dollars, and the government isn’t overseeing or managing the program,” said Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, a cattlemen’s group.
USDA currently fills records requests, subject to certain exemptions, on behalf of the boards under the federal Freedom of Information Act. USDA bills the boards to cover its oversight, including time spent on records requests.
In an April 11 letter to the leadership of the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies, 14 commodity organizations requested the change in FOIA policy on behalf of their related checkoff fee-funded boards, which are prohibited from lobbying.
Their language was included in the appropriations bill that passed the subcommittee, followed by the full House Appropriations Committee on April 19, and awaits action by the full House.
It reads: “The funding used to operate and carry out the activities of the various research and promotion programs is provided by producers and industry stakeholders, and employees on the boards are not federal employees. Therefore, the committee urges USDA to recognize that such boards are not subject to the provisions of 5 U.S.C. Section 552 (the Freedom of Information Act).”
Organizations that signed the letter included: National Potato Council, National Milk Producers Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Christmas Tree Association, American Beekeeping Federation, AmericanHort, American Mushroom Institute, American Soybean Association, Michigan Christmas Tree Association, National Cotton Council, National Pork Producers Council, National Watermelon Association, United Dairymen of Arizona and United Egg Producers.
Their letter argues the change is needed to focus producers’ resources on research and promotion, rather than record searches.
“I think the idea is we don’t want to see these producer dollars wasted by pulling paperwork,” said NPC President and CEO John Keeling, who hopes the language is retained to help Potatoes USA.
Keeling believes the growers who provide the funding would still have access to any necessary information through their colleagues who hold board positions. Furthermore, he believes USDA’s oversight prevents wasteful spending.
NCBA spokesman Chase Adams believes the language is a “common-sense” issue that clarifies the true intent of public records law.
“These are producer dollars that are used. These are not tax dollars,” Adams said.
Staff with the subcommittee’s leadership emphasized the appropriations bill would remain law for just a single year before being replaced by a new bill.
Fran Boyd, a Washington representative for the American Beekeeping Federation, noted the letter specified information for which USDA provides oversight would continue to be subject to FOIA. He said the organizations wanted the change to cover limited operations that don’t involve USDA oversight, such as whether to release details of board-funded research.
Bullard, the R-CALF USA leader, said everything the groups do involves USDA oversight and considers the assurance in the letter to be a “smokescreen.” His group has tangled with NCBA over several issues.
“We believe those commodity boards should welcome transparency, and the only way they can be subject to accountability is if producers who are required to pay these mandatory fees can ensure those fees are spent properly,” Bullard said. “We think this is an underhanded attempt to hide the activities of these boards and remove them from public scrutiny.”