Lawmakers from both ends of the ideological spectrum want to use the farm bill to impose significant new restrictions on the research and promotion programs for beef, milk and dozens of other commodities. 

An amendment sponsored by Virginia Republican Dave Brat, a member of the House Freedom Caucus (shown above), and Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer would end agreements between checkoff boards and lobbying groups.

The amendment would prohibit checkoffs from entering “into any contract or agreement to carry out checkoff program activities with a party that engages in activities for the purpose of influencing any government policy or action that relates to agriculture.”

Brat tells Agri-Pulse the current checkoff system are "coercive" against "the small guy."

"You use the federal government to coerce payments – they’re not voluntary – and then the biggies can do marketing against a small guy," Brat said.

Proponents of the measure, one of 51 farm bill amendments that the GOP leaders allowed to be debated, say it will prevent checkoff funds from being used for policy purposes, but checkoff groups were concerned the text could also be interpreted to block funds going to colleges and universities for research purposes. 

In a letter to the House Agriculture Committee urging opposition to the amendment, 38 farm organizations said the amendment was unnecessary.

“The amendment allegedly aims to improve the transparency and accountability of commodity checkoff programs, but should be soundly rejected because it takes control away from producers and will gut the programs that U.S. agriculture relies on to build demand for our products,” the groups said.

The letter also notes “advocacy has nothing to do with the entity’s partnership with checkoffs.” By law, checkoff funds, which are collected through assessments on sales of agricultural products, are prohibited from being used for lobbying or other methods of government influence. 

The Organization for Competitive Markets and allied groups critical of the checkoffs are backing the reform proposal. Checkoff boards have “repeatedly acted beyond the scope of their statutory mandate,” OCM said in a statement. 

“America’s family farmers deserve nothing less than the assurance that their tax dollars are being spent appropriately,” the group said. “Allowing trade and lobbying organizations to receive these funds and use them to advocate against the very farmers who are paying the tax must end.”

OCM claimed the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association “has been the most egregious abuser of these tax dollars. NCBA President Kevin Kester penned an op-ed urging opposition to the amendment. 

“If producers were unhappy with the results of the Beef Checkoff, they could end it. A new referendum on the program can be held at any time following a request from at least 10 percent of producers,” he said. “Dictating Beef Checkoff operations is not the role of Congress.”

(Story updated to include additional comment.)

(A previous version of this story referenced a letter signed by checkoff groups and farm organizations. Only farm organizations signed the letter.)