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.
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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.”
Chris Crawford, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said the staff of a House appropriations subcommittee drafted the provision when Kingston was chairman of that panel. The language was developed in coordination with the agriculture department and industry groups over a period of 18 months, Crawford said.
Kingston has received $1.5 million in contributions from the agribusiness sector during his career, including $7,000 from Monsanto’s PAC in 2012.
Democrats in Congress are just as culpable as Republicans when it comes to pushing pet projects for donors, said Tom Borelli, a senior fellow with FreedomWorks, a conservative think tank in Washington.
“This is certainly not unique to Senator Blunt,” Borelli said. He pointed to the fiscal cliff deal passed in January, which included billions of dollars in corporate tax credits for the likes of General Electric, Hollywood and Captain Morgan rum.
The backlash against Blunt and Monsanto is an example of selective outrage from the political left, which doesn’t seem to mind when riders promote their favorite causes, such as biofuels or renewable energy, he said.
Borelli, who has a Ph.D. in molecular biology, has no problem with the technical aspects of the farmer assurance provision, only the “shortcut” by which it became law.
“I think we’re all better off with an open and transparent process,” he said. “The whole system is corrupt because both the Senate and the House are supposed to have appropriation bills and then they wait until last minute and then everybody tries to get their favorite in. It’s a special-interest orgy at the end.”
Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, also faced a torrent of criticism for allowing the contentious provision into the budget bill without holding hearings on it. She subsequently said she didn’t put the language in the bill and didn’t support it.
A spokeswoman for Mikulski said in a statement that the chairwoman had to compromise on some priorities in order to pass the continuing resolution.
Weeks after the passage of the farmer assurance provision, Blunt still is dealing with the fallout. During a conference call with reporters last week, Blunt objected when asked why supporters of the rider had tried to sneak it into the continuing resolution anonymously.
“I was actually the only guy that was not anonymous about it,” Blunt said.
He defended the provision, saying it was intended to keep farm families from losing their livelihoods by guaranteeing they could continue to plant and harvest genetically modified crops approved by UDSA while lawsuits worked their way through the court system.
“If all the reporting on that wants to be Roy Blunt talked to Monsanto and allowed that language to stay in the bill – and I don’t know that I’m powerful enough by the way to do that – then I will stand up for farm families every time,” Blunt said.
Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher said in an email that the company participates constructively in the political process. “Input from constituents is important to Members of Congress,” he said.
Far from being secretive, the farmer assurance provision had bipartisan support in both the House and Senate as far back as June 2012, when it was passed by the House appropriations subcommittee, Helscher said. “Grower groups and other advocates for agriculture, Monsanto included, have publicly supported this language since that time and worked with members representing large agricultural constituencies in doing so,” he said.
Monsanto spent nearly $5.97 million on lobbying efforts in Washington in 2012 and $6.37 million in 2011, records from the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics show.
The company’s PAC donated a total of $756,600 to federal candidates last year, including $5,000 to Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., $9,000 to Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and $2,500 to Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan, and $30,000 total to Blunt’s campaign committee and leadership PAC.