Although agriculture is a $31 billion industry in Iowa, it’s a topic absent from this election season’s share of presidential stump speeches.
During the buildup to the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus, candidates instead turned their focus to issues like immigration reform and national security. Ethanol earned some attention, but farm subsidies, risk management programs and environmental regulations seemingly took a backseat.
That’s not all too surprising, though.
Instead of getting involved in presidential elections, major agribusinesses have historically chosen to pump their money into congressional races.
“[Archer Daniels Midland] has operations in 125 congressional districts, and we typically focus on races where we have operations,” company spokesperson Jackie Anderson said in a statement. “We do not fund presidential campaigns.”
An analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that – through political action committees or PACs – Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge Limited, Cargill Inc., Monsanto Co. and Syngenta Ag have given mostly congressional candidates a combined total of $3.44 million in campaign contributions during the 2014 and 2012 election cycles.
Going back to 1990, the companies have contributed nearly $20 million.
Nearly half of that amount came from Chicago-based Archer Daniels Midland.
“The ADM PAC helps fund campaigns for candidates who understand the issues that are important to our business,” Anderson said.
Corporations are prohibited from making direct political contributions under Federal Election Commission rules. To get around those rules, corporations gather their employees into PACs, which can make contributions up to a certain amount.
The amount corporate PACs can make is limited to $5,000 per year to candidate committees and $15,000 per year to national party committees. PACs can also make up to $5,000 in contributions per year to other PACs with similar goals.
While Archer Daniels Midland has been among the biggest agribusiness contributors during the past two decades, Monsanto has been particularly active as of late, according to data.
The St. Louis-based company gave roughly twice as much in total campaign contributions as Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill or rival agrochemicals company Syngenta in the last two election cycles.
Its PAC, the Monsanto Citizenship Fund, gave nearly $530,000 to more than 100 congressional candidates during the last full election cycle alone.
That included more than $10,000 a piece for campaign efforts associated with Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).
“Contributions are based on advancing the best interests of Monsanto and its shareowners,” company spokesperson Ben Eberle said in a statement.
In the past, those interests have included streamlining U.S. Department of Agriculture biotechnology regulation and creating voluntarily labeling rules for foods made with genetically engineered ingredients.
Companies look to back candidates best for business
Corporations use their PACs to make campaign contributions for several reasons, but they generally do so in order to establish relationships with prominent politicians and advance their agendas, according to Ian Vandewalker, counsel for the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.
“Money like that is spread around to a lot of different people,” he said. “It’s a couple thousand dollars here and there.”
After those relationships develop, companies then have a foundation to sway policymakers when it comes to determining the fate of a proposed law that might be bad for business, Vandewalker said.
Agribusiness PACs claim to be more or less bipartisan, but data suggests they tend to give much more frequently to Republicans.
During the 2014 election cycle, the five previously mentioned agribusiness companies contributed to Republican causes more than 66 percent of the time. Bunge and Syngenta gave to Republicans more than 80 percent of the time, according to data.
“This reflects contributions made to a number of candidates that support our business priorities and those of our farmer customers,” Syngenta spokesperson Paul Minehart said in a statement.
Some of Syngenta’s key business priorities include environmental policies on endangered species, pollinators and renewable fuels, along with policies on biotechnology and global trade, he said.
Lobbying records reveal that other general agribusiness interests include legislation on corporate income tax, crop insurance, patent protection, food safety, drones, country-of-original labeling and several other areas.
Officials from Cargill and Bunge did not return requests for comment on this story.
While agriculture hasn’t been a hot topic during the presidential primaries, campaign finance reform has been.
Many critics believe Federal Election Commission regulations need to be tightened in order to keep corporations from having too great an influence on the election process.
“One way to think about it is: Can you afford to spend three-quarters of a million dollars on politics?” Vandewalker said. “Most people can’t.”