Unusually detailed lobbying disclosures filed by an agriculture industry group show how lobbyists are able to leverage the revolving door between private industry and government in their efforts to influence public policy. Forty percent of all government officials listed on the American Sugarbeet Growers’ Association’s (ASGA) lobbying disclosure forms that cover activity during the Trump administration have ties to the agribusiness industry. This tally includes four officials who left the private sector only months before they were contacted by these lobbyists. By comparison, from 2010-2016, only roughly 20% of the government officials listed on the ASGA’s lobbying forms had similar ties to the agribusiness industry. These findings suggest that the sheer number of officials with industry ties in the Trump administration has created increased opportunities for special interest groups to find a sympathetic — perhaps even familiar — ear in government.
Federal lobbying is usually a fairly opaque business. While lobbying firms and in-house lobbyists are required to disclose some details of their activity, like which agencies they lobbied and on what issues, they are not required to disclose other important details, including which public officials they actually meet with. As a result, the public is largely kept in the dark about how special interests target public officials for advocacy. The ASGA’s quarterly lobbying forms, which appear to disclose at least some of the federal officials the group lobbied from 2010-2017, offer a rare look at how the revolving door between the public and private sectors can be a boon for those still seeking to influence government from the outside.
Lobbying the Trump administration
Between President Trump taking office and the ASGA filing its first quarterly disclosure for 2018, the ASGA reported lobbying six officials who previously held positions with private agribusiness groups, including Dow AgroSciences, Farm Credit Services, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, U.S. Wheat Associates, and the National Grain and Feed Associations. These former lobbyists currently work in a variety of key consumer safety and regulatory roles at the EPA, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR).
Perhaps the most troubling exchange involved the ASGA lobbying an administration official on a policy issue with clear implications for her former employer. In the third quarter of 2017, the group reported lobbying Nancy Beck, the deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention at the EPA “regarding chlorothalonil,” a fungicide used in sugarbeet farming which the EPA regulates in accordance with its classification as a probable human carcinogen. Beck had moved from her position as Senior Director of Regulatory Science Policy at the American Chemistry Council (ACC) to the EPA only a few months earlier, in May 2017. At least two members of the ACC, Bayer and BASF, produce fungicides containing chlorothalonil. In fact, while Beck still worked for the ACC, the organization funded and published research on the benefits of chlorine-based crop protectants, including chlorothalonil. Beck herself was tasked with drafting chemical manufacturers’ positions on chemical legislation and EPA regulations. In a report on Beck’s potential conflicts of interest at the EPA, The New York Times noted that she has been given unusually wide discretion in rewriting regulations, even those that involve the ACC.
In another case, the ASGA reported lobbying an official whose former employer continues to work alongside the ASGA on shared policy goals. For example, the ASGA reported meeting with USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Steve Censky in the fourth quarter of 2017 and the first quarter of 2018 “to educate on industry issues.” Censky had only recently ended a 21-year tenure as CEO of the American Soybean Association (ASA) in October 2017. Both the ASA and the ASGA are members of the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, which lobbies against labeling requirements for genetically modified organisms (GMO), arguing they are detrimental to farmers. While working for the ASA, Censky was instrumental in the passage of a 2016 law that repealed GMO labeling requirements. The ASGA publicly supported that law and urged its members to advocate for it. The USDA is currently designing GMO labeling regulations that will go into effect in July 2018.
A similar strategy during the Obama administration
Though the influx of officials with industry backgrounds has made the Trump administration an especially friendly climate for industry lobbyists, ASGA’s lobbying disclosure forms show that this strategy of leveraging the revolving door predates the current administration; of the 22 Obama administration officials named on the ASGA’s disclosures between 2010-2016, four had ties to the agribusiness industry, and three had previously worked as lobbyists themselves.
The ASGA reported lobbying Islam “Isi” Siddiqui, then chief agricultural negotiator for the USTR, in the fourth quarter of 2011 and the second quarter of 2012. Before joining the USTR, Siddiqui was employed by the biotechnology trade association CropLife America (CLA) from 2001 until 2010, and he lobbied for the group from 2001 until 2004.
Similarly, in the fourth quarter of 2011, the ASGA lobbied USTR Assistant Agricultural Negotiator for Agricultural Affairs and Commodity Policy Sharon Bomer Lauritsen. From 2006 until she joined the Obama administration in 2011, Lauritsen had been the executive vice president of the Food and Agriculture Section of the Biotechnology Industry Association (now known as the Biotechnology Innovation Organization) a large biotech trade organization that focuses on “food and agriculture biotechnology.” She was also a registered lobbyist for the group.
What explains these detailed disclosures?
It is unclear whether the additional details provided on the ASGA’s forms are the result of an error or an extraordinary commitment to transparency. On one hand, in their quarterly lobbying disclosure reports, ASGA lobbyists appear to have been erroneously listing the names of officials they lobbied in the section of the disclosure form where they are supposed to disclose “covered officials,” — government officials to whom the lobbyists have past connections. Each lobbyist should always list the same officials, but the ASGA lobbyists list different officials on each form, suggesting that they are not using that section to report connections to officials. Commerce officials are often named under descriptions of lobbying on trade issues, while USDA officials tend to appear alongside lobbying on agriculture policy. For example, on their fourth quarter disclosure for 2017, the ASGA disclosed meeting with USDA official Ted McKinney and then named him as a covered official, as shown below:
On the other hand, the ASGA has been filling out the forms this way since 2010, creating a record of eight years’ worth of meetings. If these details were being disclosed in error, it seems likely the mistake would have been corrected.
While most lobbyists disclose fewer details of their meetings than the ASGA, many others are likely reaping similar benefits from an administration packed with officials who recently left the private sector. According to a tweet from a sugar beet farmer, a group of ASGA members expressed their satisfaction with the Trump administration by visiting the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. during their annual meeting in February 2018 to have “a drink to support a President that supports us.”