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As dollars flow, the favors are sure to follow
By Alan Guebert
Farm & Food File
A decade ago, the most dangerous place to be in Washington, D.C. was between then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and a television camera. Today, the most dangerous place to be is in super lobbyist-confessed felon Jack Abramoff’s little black book.

What a black book. According to press reports, Abramoff’s influence peddling - documented through campaign finance reports by the Center for Responsive Politics, or CRP, (www.opensecrets.org) - is the most corrosive undermining of elective government since Grant’s Era of Good Stealing.

Nearly everyone got a piece of the Abramoff action. Even the country boys and girls on the House and Senate Ag committees partook of the largesse.

According to campaign contributions tracked by CRP, current Republican members of the House Ag Committee pocketed $99,500 of Abramoff money between 1999 and October 2005.

The biggest aggie taker was California Rep. Richard Pombo, a former rancher and now chairman of the House Resources Committee. Pombo accepted $54,500 of Native American gambling cash funneled through Abramoff.

The second biggest grabber was Ohioan John Boehner, now racing to replace defrocked House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. He slid $32,500 of Abramoff cash into his campaign coffers.

House Democratic aggies were pikers by comparison. Still they pocketed $18,100, or $1 for every $6 the Republicans received. The big winner was Joe Baca, another Californian, who pulled in $8,000 between 1999 and 2005.

Republicans on the Senate Ag Committee, however, hit the jackpot. Eight of the 11 members split $122,500. Over half, or $65,500, went to Mississippi’s Thad Cochran; all, according to CRP, was Indian gaming money.

The aggie Senate Democrats, like their House counterparts, got stiffed by comparison. Only $38,500 of Abramoff cash floated to six of the group’s nine members between 1999 and 2005. Ranking member Tom Harkin of Iowa nicked the lion’s share, $15,500.

To hear all tell it now, though, not one nickel bought the greaser, Abramoff, five cents of anything from the greased, Congress. Right. The fact that outside money buys nothing inside the Beltway also must be why the number of registered lobbyists in Washington leaped from 9,000 in 1994 to over 34,000 in 2005 and the number of “earmark” pork projects funded by Congress soared from 6,000 in 2001 to 14,000 this year.

Few in the Congressional meat market play the game more sanctimoniously than Rep. Henry Bonilla, a west Texas Republican whose only affiliation with agriculture is his chairmanship of the House Ag Appropriations subcommittee. He holds the purse strings to federal farm spending.

Bonilla, a TV broadcaster before his election to Congress in 1992, became boss of Ag Approps (thank you, Tom DeLay) in 2001. Shortly thereafter, Democrats got mandatory Country of Origin Labeling for American-sold food into the 2002 Farm Bill despite fierce opposition from USDA and meatpackers.

Almost immediately, however, the meat gang, USDA and Bonilla went to work to freeze COOL. USDA shamelessly, wrongly guessed the law’s cost at $2 billion to $9 billion per year. Bonilla seized the quickly discredited estimate to delay COOL implementation in 2003, alter its basics in 2004 and, in 2005, push its implementation back another two years.

Curiously, the harder Bonilla worked to kill COOL the greater the lard flowed to his campaign war chest from anti-COOL groups like meatpackers, the American Meat Institute (AMI), National Cattlemen’s Beef Assoc. (NCBA) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

In the 1999-2000 election cycle, the year before he became Ag Approps boss, Bonilla banked $95,540 in agbiz political action committee cash. Two grand came from NCBA, $300 from NPPC and AMI poured in $7,000.

Today, with re-election yet 11 months away, Bonilla already has collected $281,824 in 2006 agbiz PAC money. The stash includes $65,178 from anti-COOL livestock interests alone; $5,000 from NCBA, $3,000 from NPPC, $8,000 from AMI, $10,000 from the Texas Cattle Feeders and $4,000 from Dairy Farmers of America.

How does an all-hat, non-Ag Committee congressman become the top agbiz PAC collector in Congress?

It’s easy, explained Bonilla in April 2003 press release, “You simply cannot underestimate the opportunities this position affords me...”

What dedication. What modesty. What crockery.

Published in the January 18, 2006 issue of Farm World.

1/18/2006