Ah, the Power of Government
Andrea Neal column for Nov. 5, 2003
INDIANAPOLIS — If you spend any time at all watching TV, you’ve no doubt heard the clever marketing slogans of the agricultural industry:
"Ah … the Power of Cheese."
"The Incredible, Edible Egg."
"Cotton … the Fabric of Our Lives."
"Pork. The Other White Meat."
But did you know that Indiana farmers are forced to help pay for these ads, whether they like them or not, and regardless of whether they agree with the message?
It’s one of the more outrageous policies of our government and it’s pervasive throughout agriculture. In essence, Congress require farmers to pay a fee to fund promotion, research and consumer education about the benefits of their commodity. The money is collected like a tax, then handed over by the ag department to a board representing producers in the respective sectors.
These folks, as a general rule, speak for Big Agriculture, not the interests and concerns of small, family farmers, who continue to die off by the hundreds each year.
In the case of pork, the assessment amounts to about 40 cents for every $100 in sales of pork. That translates to close to $50 million a year for the National Pork Board, which has channeled much of the money to the National Pork Producers Council.
If the impropriety of the arrangement hasn’t hit you, consider this analogy. What if the government required all car sellers, whether large dealerships or used car lot owners, to pay a fee on every car sold? What if that money was directed to a car council, predominantly representing Big Three automakers, to design an ad campaign to get Americans to buy more cars, preferably expensive new cars?
Does the phrase "taxation without representation" come to mind?
That’s exactly what it is, and it’s past time for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to end the extortion. So far, it’s shown little interest in doing so.
The mandatory pork assessment has caused controversy among hog farmers for years. In 1998, a lobbying group called the Campaign for Family Farms demanded a referendum among farmers to decide if the program should continue. The campaign is a coalition of farm groups that includes the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana. In a vote conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the fall of 2000, more than 30,000 farmers voted 53 percent to 47 percent to end the program. After the vote, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman ordered the assessments stopped.
Then, in a stunning reversal early in the George W. Bush administration, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman ruled the payments would continue. The Campaign for Family Farms, representing disgruntled Michigan hog farmers, filed suit. Last year, U.S. District Judge Richard Enslen in Michigan struck down the program as a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees, declaring "the government has been made tyrannical by forcing men and women to pay for messages they detest. Such a system is at the bottom unconstitutional and rotten."
On Oct. 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld Enslen’s decision. Unless the feds quickly admit the error of their ways, this issue appears headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ag department’s hardheadedness is perplexing considering the court precedents to date. Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit struck down the mandatory assessment paid by beef producers. You guessed it: Most of that money went to fund the promotional campaign: "Beef — It’s what’s for Dinner." In 2001, the Supreme Court struck down a mushroom producer’s assessment.
The agriculture department is an anomaly in Washington, being the only agency that exists essentially to enhance a private industry, one deemed of utmost important to Americans and our economic stability.
But that’s no excuse for trampling the rights of farmers who wish to abstain from expensive if catchy PR campaigns.
Despite the best efforts of Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., to end them, farm subsidies persist in this country, distorting commodity prices and hurting small, independent farms. It’s a safe bet these advertising assessments will continue until the Supremes again intervene, despite the clear conviction of lower courts that they are unconstitutional.
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Andrea Neal, former editor of the Indianapolis Star editorial page, is adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.