WASHINGTON -- Late last month, the U.S. Senate was once again under deadline pressure. The eleventh hour was approaching and Congress had to pass a stopgap budget bill to avert a federal government shutdown looming at the end of March.
The bill passed the Senate after a flurry of last-minute amendments on March 20. The House of Representatives approved it the next day. Buried in the 587-page package, a rider nicknamed the “farmer assurance provision” drew little notice.
Within days, however, the obscure provision set off a firestorm on social media and the Internet, igniting a backlash from food safety activists who complained that the legislation allowed biotechnology companies to continue to sell genetically modified seeds even if a court of law determined the U.S. Department of Agriculture hadn’t properly studied the seeds’ impact on the environment.
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who championed the provision, was caught in the controversy when the Capitol Hill publication Politico quoted him as saying he had worked on the legislation with Monsanto, a major biotech corporation based in St. Louis.
Monsanto is one of Blunt’s biggest donors. Since his election to Congress in 1996, Blunt has received $95,750 from company employees, their family members and the company’s political action committee, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group. Monsanto co-hosted a fundraiser for the senator last May in Washington.
Although the provision’s language originated in an agriculture spending bill in the House, not the Senate, Blunt’s comment to Politico made him the focus of fury for opponents of the legislation, who nicknamed it the “Monsanto Protection Act.” Blogs decried Blunt as a “Congressional Judas” and “Monsanto’s Man in Washington.” Someone even altered his Wikipedia page, writing that his Senate seat “will be sold by Blunt to Monsanto Corporation upon his retirement.”
In reality, the provision isn’t likely to have much effect because it expires at the end of September and USDA says it may be unenforceable anyway. But the process by which it became law demonstrates the lack of transparency in policymaking in Washington and the cozy relationship between special interests and members of Congress, said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation.
“The problem is we have these massive bills that are voted on without people knowing exactly what’s in them and there is an opportunity for members to put in language that benefits one company or a handful of companies without the public being aware of it,” Allison said.
Although ostensibly the measure is intended to benefit farmers who grow genetically modified foods, it also benefits Monsanto because the farmers know if they buy the genetically modified seeds they can sell them, he said.
“It’s clear that Monsanto was lobbying for this and it’s clear that Blunt went to bat for them,” Allison said.
Blunt said in a statement Monday that he wasn’t responsible for including the provision in the Senate version of the budget bill. “There were things in the Senate bill that dealt with agriculture research that the House accepted, and there were provisions in the House version like this one that the Senate accepted,” he said. “I didn’t propose this provision or place it in the bill, but I do support the policy, which protects farm families.”