COLUMN: Anti-Farmer Campaign Funded by Taxpayers Breaks Public Trust

April 25, 2016
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

Last week, I was joined by 144 of my colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives—one third of the entire House—to demand the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) cooperation with congressional and Inspector General investigations into a very serious matter. The issue under investigation is the grant funding that the EPA provided to promote an anti-farmer, anti-rancher advocacy campaign in Washington. Farmers and ranchers are the original conservationists because their livelihoods depend on taking care of the land, air, and water. As a farmer myself, whose family still runs a hop farm, it is especially frustrating that taxpayer dollars were improperly granted to fund this campaign. I am committed to getting to bottom of the matter and holding the EPA accountable.

The “What’s Upstream” advocacy campaign was paid for by taxpayer dollars to publish billboards, ads, social media, and a website that urged the site’s visitors to send lawmakers a pre-written advocacy message to support additional regulations on agriculture. The bottom of the site’s page includes the text: “This project has been funded wholly or in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.” While funding education efforts is legal, as the law states, taxpayer funding for “publicity or propaganda purposes,” is prohibited and in blatant violation of federal law. The What’s Upstream campaign crossed the line.

What already seems clear at this point is that the EPA grant used taxpayer dollars to improperly support advocacy efforts against farmers. The EPA admitted as much in news reports, and in a recent congressional hearing. In fact, the EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy expressed her “distress” regarding the advocacy campaign the agency funded. The EPA has not yet given answers about when it was aware of the misuse of grant funds for the advocacy campaign.

Sadly, this is not the first time that the EPA’s mismanagement has crossed the line into funding advocacy efforts. In 2014, an EPA Inspector General’s report noted that the EPA Region 10 office in Washington had insufficient protections in place to ensure grant awardees were not using funds for advocacy, propaganda, or lobbying efforts. In 2015, a government report found that EPA had committed similar violations on social media advocacy campaigns supporting the EPA’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) regulation. I strongly oppose the WOTUS rule as a regulatory power grab to expand federal control over waterways. The rule is being challenged by states in federal court, where it has been put on hold.

The EPA seems bent on expanding regulations on agriculture by any and all means. American farmers work hard to produce the food we put on our tables, and they also work to take care of the land and minimize impacts to the environment. Is there more work to be done? Yes. But farmers do not deserve to be maligned by taxpayer-funded publicity campaigns. EPA’s mismanagement contributes to a breakdown in trust with the agriculture community. The EPA owes Americans answers, and it has a lot of work to do to restore trust.