Fact: In an administration where the president's approval rating is in the 40s and Congress' approval rating – shameful under any president – hovers in the teens, there is a program which has consistently ranked in the 70 to 80 percent approval range for many years. It is not strictly a government program, of course, being paid for and directed by a specific constituency, and the government's role is monitoring for compliance with the law.
This program has passed Inspector General audits and another examination requested by the cabinet secretary of the department involved.
Fact: Politicians and government agencies nearly always ask the question, when a constituency group comes hat in hand asking for some action or legislation, "Are your industry groups lined up behind this proposal or request?" Sometimes that question is designed to just get the requesting groups out of their office, with the admonition to come back when consensus has been achieved.
Sometimes the question is asked to prod the industry into a corner where they either hammer out a consensus on their own or live with the status quo until they do or the situation changes. Politicians and bureaucrats – and rightly so – are loath to become referees in intra-industry policy disputes. Such direct involvement should be limited to national emergencies, like has happened historically with dire national emergencies, like coal strikes, air controller strikes or railroad strikes.
Fact: Nearly a dozen groups involved within a particular industry have been working diligently for three years to achieve a consensus on an issue mostly important to only two groups in the industry – a decided and obvious minority of the industry in question. The larger of the two dissenting groups withdrew from the effort this summer. The majority groups were not finished with their efforts when the cabinet officer interrupted and peremptorily announced he was taking over. His takeover proposal reflected what the withdrawing group had demanded, not what the majority of industry groups were fashioning.
Fact: The industry in question had had a well-established research, education, promotion and market development program for nearly 30 years. It had been designed and passed by a vote of the industry participants, with the structure based on key principles of industry control, use of existing organizations and their expertise, minimal bureaucracy and reimbursing the government for monitoring costs.
Fact: A cabinet officer has decided to step out of a government agency's role as assisting or facilitating progress in an industry to intrude and invade upon an industry's rightful turf, in an area where the government does not have a primary regulatory enforcement mandate or a public health role.
I believe the above is a fair summary of the factual aspects involved with, I imagine you have deduced by now, the Secretary of Agriculture's initiative to create a new beef checkoff to exist alongside the existing beef checkoff.
As for interpretation and opinion, I don't believe a competing checkoff can help but impinge upon the existing checkoff's authority, affect support and satisfaction with the whole situation and create resentment at the government's infringing on a cattlemen-designed and cattlemen-approved program. After all, USDA would be asking cattlemen to pay into a program where they are not guaranteed to have control of how the money is spent, not control who is on the board – including possible PETA or HSUS or Food & Water Watch representatives – perhaps see groups created to compete with their own state beef councils, the national Federation of State Beef Councils and allow three times the administrative expenses they mandated in their program.
In an area wherein those both inside and outside the industry have been pleased with historical activity and structure, USDA Secretary Vilsack has chosen to compete with an existing program to satisfy only the dissenting minority referenced above and usurp the function and satisfaction of the overwhelming majority of the industry.
USDA has said it was stepping in because the industry groups had not reached a "consensus." A consensus is defined as a "majority of opinion." Was the cabinet officer stepping in because the group had not yet reached a consensus or because he thought they might, now that the main dissenting group (National Farmers Union (NFU)) had left the process? If there was no consensus, why was the government stepping in? In areas of industry promotion and development, shouldn't the government stay out of it if there is no industry consensus? Where is it written that the government is supposed to step in when an industry has not reached a consensus to request an action in a non-regulatory field? Where was there a deadline by which the majority groups needed to reach a consensus, unless it was the one perceived by Washington politics with an election approaching? What justification does the Secretary have to attempt to create a program designed to the specifications of a resounding minority of one major group, vocally opposed by the rest of the industry?
When a government official begins meddling in waters he shouldn't, for political reasons, the danger of being bitten by sharks is always present. The official "Notice of Inquiry" in the Federal Register admitted that the one group [NFU] that withdrew from the industry Working Group, was the one that recommended USDA create a new checkoff. After Vilsack went out on a limb for NFU to begin procedures for a new checkoff, because they were not happy with the present checkoff, they told him they were not happy with the new proposed checkoff either. Is NFU hard to please? Is the beef industry checkoff being used like a political football? Are we being set up as Charlie Brown chumps? It looks that way.
The livestock industries have been the closest thing to supply and demand, free market economies, as anything in the U.S. economy. Free market systems have winners and losers because the consumer is the ultimate arbiter, voting with his or her dollars. Most of farm and livestock groups favor staying as close as possible to that free market system.
National Farmers Union is probably the largest farm group that has lined up on the populist side, opposite the free market philosophy. It favors more government involvement, more regulation and restrictions on industry players and remains more concerned with what it considers equitable results for farmers and ranchers than concern for what the consumer wants. Even now, its policies favor mCOOL, mandatory GMO and implant labeling of all foods and a "target price program on a limited volume of production as automatic compensation for livestock producers..."
That means NFU is politically lined up against the largest of the free market cattle groups, National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). Look at the facts and interpretations and the inescapable conclusion is that NFU considers NCBA the enemy. NFU is obviously angry because, so far, it has failed to force a divorce between NCBA and the state beef councils and the Federation of state beef councils. The majority decided years ago on that structure for carefully thought out reasons. NFU is also upset because USDA – understandably as a government agency – didn’t figure out a way to propose a new beef checkoff that would, by regulatory design, exclude NCBA from any involvement.
I favor the Secretary waiting until the majority of the beef industry comes to him with a consensus request, not trying to cater to a vocal minority because it suits the politics of the moment.
USDA is taking comment on their "Notice of Inquiry" seeking input on a new beef checkoff by Dec. 10, 2014.
Click here to read the Notice of Inquiry and see the questions USDA has posed:
Click here to reach the comment location on the regulation website: