Friday, June 16, 2000

Chabot contests mink farm subsidies

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — A cause needs a martyr, and for Rep. Steve Chabot and other conservatives, it just may be the sympathetic mink.

        Trim, sleek and bushy-tailed, the mink is a crafty hunter but is best known for its luxurious fur, admired by people with expensive tastes in fashion. This year's agriculture spending bill would let mink producers apply for federal money in the government's Market Access Program to advertise the valuable pelts in foreign markets.

  Here are some of the top recipients of money from the USDA's Market Access Program last year:
  • U.S. Meat Export Federation: $8.3 million.
  • Cotton Council International: $7.9 million.
  • American Forest & Paper Association: $6 million.
  • Mid-America International Agri-Trade Council: $5.1 million.
  • Western United States Agricultural Association: $5.1 million.
  • Florida Department of Citrus: $3.8 million.
  • USA Poultry and Egg Export Council: $3.2 million.
  • Wine Institute: $3.1 million.
  • U.S. Grains Council: $3.1 million.
  • U.S. Rice Federation/U.S. Rice Producers Association: $2.8 million.
        Conservatives who have tried, and failed, to abolish the $90 million Market Access Program as wasteful see the mink as a perfect trigger.

        “It's corporate welfare at its worst,” said Mr. Chabot, R-Ohio. “This is not something taxpayers should be subsidizing.”

        The fact that Mr. Chabot and other conservatives have to reach for symbols like the mink to make a point about federal spending as relatively minor as the Market Access Program is evidence of an attitude shift.

        When Mr. Chabot and other Republicans took over Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, there was bold talk of eliminating entire departments, from education to commerce to housing and urban development.

        Four years ago, lawmakers barred mink producers from the Market Access Program after pleas from animal rights activists on behalf of the mink, which are trapped in the wild or bred in captivity for use on coats, wraps, hats and other clothing.

        Rep. David Obey, of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, quietly restored eligibility for mink producers in a $75.4 billion agriculture spending bill the House is scheduled to debate soon. Wisconsin has the second largest number of mink farms in the United States, behind Utah.

        The Humane Society of the United States, which normally stays out of obscure budget disputes, is behind Mr. Chabot and the mink.

        “We believe mink farms and other fur farms are inherently cruel to animals,” said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of communications and government affairs. “It's a product produced solely for fashion or vanity. We're hoping the industry just withers away.”

        Mink pelt production — 2.9 million pelts — was down 2 percent in 1998, the latest figures available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The value of mink pelts — $72.9 million — was off 26 percent, with the average price per pelt at $24.80.

        The Fur Information Council estimates U.S. retail sales of mink products at $1.2 billion, with the top markets in New York, Chicago and other big cities. Fur was a popular accessory in fall fashion lines, and many fur retailers report that sales have rebounded this year.

        David Schmitt, of Schmitt Fur Farms in Fort Recovery, Ohio, said the fur industry is under constant attack from animal rights militants whose agenda is to save all animals from the fashion runway, the medical laboratory and — ultimately — the dinner table. The Market Access Program, he said, would help U.S. fur producers compete in markets in Russia, Japan and Korea.

        “Unfortunately, the animal rights people got involved and we were kicked out,” Mr. Schmitt said. “We're not getting our message out as well as we would like.”

        Conservatives like Mr. Chabot provided much of the enthusiasm behind a balanced-budget amendment and welfare reform — victories shared with their nemesis, President Clinton — but have found it harder to reach other goals now that a budget surplus gives lawmakers more money to spend.

        Instead of revolutionary changes, many conservatives have split into camps and narrowed their attention to more subtle quests. The Conservative Action Team, for instance, concentrates on budget matters. The Values Action Team looks for opportunities to alter social policy.

        “Realistically, you do what you can, and, at the moment, it means highlighting the most egregious examples,” said Peter Sperry, a federal budget policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research group. “The only other option was to give up.”

        Mr. Chabot admits that many of the confrontations today are with the House leadership and others in his own political party.

        “It's a fact that now that we've balanced the budget some people have lost their fervor for cutting wasteful spending,” said Mr. Chabot, whose frugality has been recognized by the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste. “But I'm not disillusioned.”

        The Market Access Program has the support of the Clinton administration and influential leaders in Congress, particularly lawmakers from agricultural regions. Last year, 65 trade associations and small businesses used the $90 million subsidy to sell peanuts, soybeans, wine, pistachios, watermelons, apples, wheat and other products abroad. Over the past several years, Congress has ordered restrictions on the program so as not to favor large corporations that market brand-name items.

        The USDA requires trade associations or small businesses that plan generic advertising to pay at least 10 percent of promotion costs, while groups that engage in brand-name advertising are expected to pay 50 percent of the costs.

        A 1999 report by the General Accounting Office, requested by Mr. Chabot and other lawmakers, concluded that the benefits of the Market Access Program are overstated, since it is difficult to evaluate how U.S. products would perform abroad without the government subsidy.

        Tim Galvin, administrator at the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, said foreign governments often spend three and four times more than the United States to help producers sell products overseas. “If you talk with people who use this money, they say that without the government cost-share they simply would not be able to engage in these marketing activities,” he said of U.S. producers.


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