Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Commodity groups want to exclude checkoff funds from federal Freedom of Information Act

The House Appropriations Committee's 2017 Agriculture Appropriations bill says that checkoff programs are not agencies of the federal government, meaning they don't fall under Freedom of Information Act requests, Marion Nestle reports for Food Politics. Checkoff programs are research and promotion programs run by boards and overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Checkoffs mainly do generic marketing. They are not supposed to lobby. The USDA is supposed to manage the boards—but not with federal money. So are checkoffs government programs or not? The checkoffs like to say they are government when convenient, but not government when inconvenient. This is one of those times."

On April 11 a group of 14 trade associations—not the checkoff programs themselves—"sent a letter to Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) chairman of the House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, and Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) the subcommittee's top Democrat, asking them to urge USDA to recognize that the promotional programs are not subject to public records requests," Candice Choi and Mary Clare Jalonick report for The Associated Press. "The rationale was that the programs are funded by producers. The House Appropriations Committee approved the legislation on April 19, including the report language urging USDA to recognize the programs are not subject to FOIA."

While checkoff programs do not receive federal funds "it's the government's backing that enables them to collect money from producers," opines Urban Lehner, editor emeritus for DTN The Progressive Farmer. "In a 2005 case involving the beef checkoff, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge from ranchers who didn't want to pay the assessment. They said being forced to subsidize promotional messages with which they disagreed (because the messages promoted generic beef, not particular types of beef) violated their First Amendment rights."

"The court replied that citizens have no First Amendment right not to fund "government speech"—and checkoff messages are government speech," Lehner writes. "Writing for the court, the late Justice Antonin Scalia declared, 'The message of the (beef) promotional campaigns is effectively controlled by the Federal Government itself" Checkoff boards liked the decision. They like the governmental aura when it enables mandatory fee collections. They don't like it when it allows embarrassing information about their operations to come to light. That's the real reason 14 commodity organizations (not the checkoff boards themselves, which aren't allowed to lobby) sought the exemption."

No comments: