Campaign Cash--It's What's For Dinner

Last week, NPR interviewed New York University Professor Marion Nestle (a nutritionist and author of "Food Politics") about Wal-Mart’s decision to “reformulate thousands of products to make them healthier and push its suppliers to do the same.”

The announcement could have an “enormous impact on the food industry,” according to Nestle. What caught our attention here at Public Campaign, aside from the fact that we have some foodies on staff, is what she said near the end of the interview about another issue that impacts our eating habits.

"The other source of corruption, of course, is the way we fund election campaigns. As long as corporations are funding the campaigns of our congressional representatives, we're not going to get laws passed that favor public health. Our laws are going to continue to favor corporate health," Nestle said.

Our friend and Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig spoke eloquently about this, and the epidemic of childhood obesity, recently at a celebration of the anniversary of Maine’s Clean Elections law. From sugar tariffs to corn subsidies, “there’s an enormous amount of campaign cash on both sides of this story." Lessig says, "Suggesting that if in fact it's because of these campaign contributions, campaign money that's distorting a market, which is distoring food production, which is distorting our children."

He’s right. Tariffs, subsidies, food standards—campaign cash and lobbying play a role in the rules and regulations that are passed by Congress and implemented by government agencies. Farm subsidies are big business, and the factory farms and their lobbying operations and campaign contributions are too.

Some key facts (all according to data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics):

  • In 2009 and 2010, the agribusiness sector spent more than $259 million on lobbying and campaign contributions to Congress.
  • Over the past 12 years, the industry has spent $1.5 billion on lobbying and campaign contributions at the federal level.
  • Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the new chair of the House Committee on Agriculture, has received $365,500 from the industry during his time in Congress. He actually voted against the Food Safety Modernization Act passed in December, legislation that went to President Obama’s desk with strong bipartisan support in both chambers. (As of this writing, the Senate Agriculture Committee has not named members in the 112th Congress.)
  • Some of the biggest players in the sector include American Crystal Sugar, Altria Group, Monsanto, and Dow Chemical.

Food policy and safety laws, when being debated, should take the health and welfare of the American people under consideration—rather than reflect how much campaign cash has been spent by certain industries. But, that’s the system we find ourselves in. And that’s why we support small-donor driven Fair Elections systems as the alternative.