For a fairly pedestrian vegetable, the potato has serious political sway in Washington.
The National Potato Council, the industry's advocate in Washington, has been making itself prominent across Washington in recent months, increasing its lobbying and campaign contributions to record numbers. It may be having an impact: With a Senate subcommittee markup coming later this month on an appropriations bill for a USDA food program that bans white potatoes, the council has recruited20 senators to get on its side.
At issue for the council is WIC - the food program for low-income women, infants and children that gives them money to spend on nutritious foods they might not otherwise buy. Since 2009, the USDA has banned the purchase of white potatoes with WIC funds. The agency relied on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, which found in a 2005study that starches, and white potatoes in particular, are already widely eaten and thus don't need any support from the program.
“Including white potatoes in the WIC food packages would not contribute towards meeting the nutritional needs of the WIC population and would not support the goal of expanding the types and varieties of fruits and vegetables available to program participants, as recommended by the IOM," the USDA wrote in the revised rules it released in March.
The potato lobby says the agency relies on flawed and outdated data that doesn't support the ban. To get that point across to the USDA, the group managed to get 20 lawmakers to sign a letter last week clamoring for the agency to reinstate the humble spud as a WIC-eligible food.
In the letter, the senators write that the 2005 study that the USDA used as its reasoning is now too outdated, and, "the USDA did not base its final rule for WIC food packages on the most recent dietary guidelines, which reflect the latest science."
The support from lawmakers comes as the NPC's lobbying spending and campaign contributions have been surging. After spending less than $100,000 on lobbying from 2008 through 2012, the group upped its outlays to $180,000 last year; there's only one year in the council's history when it spent more. And the council spent $60,000 in the first quarter of 2014, a rate that, if it continued for the rest of 2014, would set a new record.
While the NPC lobbied on many issues, including the recent farm bill, the group said that much of this year's increase can be attributed to taking the fight over the WIC program from the USDA to Congress.
"The lobbying is a result of moving from a regulatory approach to needing to find a legislative fix," said Mark Szymanski, a spokesman for the National Potato Council. Groups on the other side of the issue, such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, say the decision should be a science-based one and remain with USDA, rather than be influenced by politics.
For the 2014 election cycle, the NPC's PAC has given out a record $53,000 already, more than the $43,000 it contributed to congressional candidates in the entire 2012 cycle. The group says that doesn't necessarily have to do with one issue, but reflects a longer-term goal of building its Washington presence.
That presence appears to be paying off. After the USDA required that white potatoes be served in school lunches only two days per week, the NPC pushed to remove the limits, and won.
"I think that after the school meal plan success, our members have seen the benefits of having a larger presence in DC," Szymanski said.
More than half of the senators who have received money from the National Potato Council in this election cycle signed on to the letter. Chief among those senators was Sen. Mark Udall(D-Colo.), who received $5,000 from the council. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has repeatedly come out against the ban and whose home state is full of potato growers, has received $2,000 from the council.
Other senators who signed the letter and were given campaign contributions by the council's PAC include Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), who received $3,500; Sen. Debbie Stabenow(D-Mich.), $2,000; Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), $1,000; and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), $1,000.
Source: Open Secrets