Politics & Policy

What’s a Cromnibus’s Favorite Vegetable?

Spending on spuds. (Hgfoto/Dreamstime)
Lobbyists and legislators from potato-farming states got a big federal food program to include spuds.

Add this to all the other Washington truisms proven by last week’s frantic passage of the “cromnibus” spending bill: There are lobbyists for everything, and over a long enough timeline, they almost always get what they want.

It wasn’t long ago that D.C. insiders were forecasting dark times for the boosters of the American potato farmer. “These are bad days for Big Potato,” wrote the Washington Post back in April, after the Agriculture Department refused to update its standards for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (known as “WIC”), which provides subsidies for 8.7 million women to buy healthy food for them and their children.

WIC payments can be used to buy staples like milk, cheese, breakfast cereal, dried beans and lentils, even tofu — but not potatoes. Program participants can buy yams, but “white potatoes” — every kind of potato besides the yam, essentially — are specifically excluded. Scientists at the federal Institute of Medicine say that children already get enough of the starchy stuff — particularly through the dreaded French fry.

Congress had already tried to address this discrimination: An amendment in last year’s omnibus spending bill from Idaho Republican congressman Mike Simpson instructed the Agriculture Department to include all fresh vegetables in the WIC program. But the USDA simply ignored that language and refused to count white potatoes as veggies, pointing again to research by the Institute of Medicine.

What a difference eight months — and a little bit of legislative persistence — can make.

Simpson put potatophilic language into the omnibus bill again this year, and this time the congressman was explicit. “Any fresh vegetable, including white potatoes” is now the new WIC standard provided to the USDA, giving the department little wiggle room to exclude the spuds. With the omnibus’s passage, there are now 8.7 million people with more money to spend on potatoes — making Idaho’s billion-dollar potato industry very happy.

But it wasn’t just Simpson’s loyalty to his farmer constituents that got the measure into law. The potato lobby, headed by the ten-year-old National Potato Council, helped as well. In 2014, the NPC spent $370,000 on eleven lobbyists, including a former Idaho congressman and his staff and former USDA officials. That may sound like loose change on K Street, but it’s a lot of love for one vegetable.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal during the debate over the spending bill, NPC head John Keeling said he’s “pleased that things have gone this far” with the bill and his favored amendment, but noted, “At the level this game’s being played, we’re still a small potato.”

Keeling might be underselling his clout. The potato lobby already logged one big win in 2011, when Maine Republican senator Susan Collins successfully pushed the USDA to return the spud to its rightful place in school lunches — stymying efforts by the Obama administration to take out the tuber.

The NPC was on the front lines throughout that fight, pushing out surveys of school administrators bemoaning the new lunch programs’ cost and complexity and holding media events with keynote speakers — including Senator Collins — extolling the potato’s many virtues.

Maine, naturally, possesses a healthy potato industry.

For any discouraged K Street lobbyist, the potato lobby’s win last week should offer a glimmer of hope. If the lowly spud can be swept to victory today, there’s no limit to what the next big spending bill can do.

— Brendan Bordelon is an editorial associate at National Review Online.

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