Another attempt to majorly overhaul commodity checkoff programs was introduced in the Senate. The Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act was reintroduced by Sens. Mike Lee (R., Utah), Cory Booker (D., N.J.), Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Elizabeth Warren, (D., Mass.).
Lee and Paul also introduced the Voluntary Check-Off Program Participation Act on Thursday, a bill that give would give farmers and ranchers the freedom not to participate in U.S. Department of Agriculture checkoff programs. Checkoff programs are funded through compulsory fees on producers of milk, eggs, beef and a multitude of other agricultural products.
Having filed the OFF Act in the last Congress, Lee and Booker offered the legislation as an amendment to the 2018 farm bill. The amendment was supported by 100-plus organizations and garnered the support of 38 senators.
Specifically, the bill would prohibit lobbying trade organizations from receiving checkoff funds, but this restriction does not apply to universities. “It would rein in conflicts of interest and stop anticompetitive activities that harm other commodities and consumers,” bill authors noted.
The bill would increase transparency of the individual boards’ actions by shedding light on how federal checkoff funds are spent and the purpose of their expenditures. It would also require audits of each program every five years to ensure that their activities are in compliance with the law.
“Checkoff programs force farmers to pay into a system that sometimes actively works against their interests," Lee said. "On top of that, the boards for these programs have come under fire for a lack of transparency and for misuse of their funds. The Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act is commonsense reform that would help farmers see exactly where the fees they pay are going and ensure that their hard-earned money is not being used against them.”
Fred Stokes, founding member of the Organization for Competitive Markets, said in a statement: “The over $850 million these programs take from farmers each year have become the cash cow for organizations that work against fair competition and market transparency. So long as checkoff funds remain hidden from accountability and in the hands of trade and lobbying groups, independent family agriculture is in peril of being wiped from the face of the countryside. It is imperative this legislation be passed and signed into law.”
Regarding the Voluntary Checkoff Program Participation Act, Lee said, “If farmers and ranchers want to get together and pool their resources to better promote their products, then that is the free market at its best, but as soon as the power of the federal government is used to force people into a program they do not want to participate in, then that is crony capitalism at its worst.”