Eight House Members or their families are among those who would receive compensation under a nearly $10 billion tobacco quota buyout bill, according to a study of federal agriculture records obtained by the liberal Environmental Working Group.
Amid the heightened attention, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) last week recused himself from a vote on the Senate version of the tobacco buyout upon discovering that tobacco is grown on a portion of his wife’s farm in North Carolina. “We wanted to make sure there was no appearance of a conflict of interest,” said Bill Ghent, a Carper spokesman.
The buyout, sponsored by Rep. Bill Jenkins (R-Tenn.) and approved as a rider to the House-passed version of the FSC-ETI international business-tax bill, is designed to eliminate a price-support system that dates back to the New Deal era, limiting the amount of tobacco that American growers can send to market each year. The measure would dispense $9.6 billion over five years to more than 400,000 domestic quota-holders and tobacco farmers.
At least seven of the bill’s 43 co-sponsors — Reps. Jenkins, Martin Frost (D-Texas), Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Ben Chandler (D-Ky.), Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) — stand to benefit from the buyout, as would Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.), a bill supporter.
Jenkins, who chairs the Agriculture subcommittee that oversees tobacco policy, would receive $39,633.29 for roughly three acres worth of tobacco quota held in Hawkins County, Tenn. Jenkins said he leases most of his quota to neighbors and friends, while a son-in-law grows tobacco on a small portion of the land. His wife, Kathryn Jenkins, would be compensated $14,520.18 for her own share of leased quota.
In an ethics ruling he asked for in March 2003, Jenkins was told that his tobacco-farming interests need not prevent him from voting on or sponsoring bills that could impact his finances. The House Ethics Manual “require[s] a Member to abstain from voting only on a matter that would impact the Member in a direct and distinct manner, rather than merely as a member of a class,” the ruling said.
Kathryn Frost, the wife of Martin Frost, would receive payments for growing rights she leases in Dillon County, S.C. Under the buyout, Kathryn Frost would receive $26,715.29 for an estimated 2.5 acres of quota that she inherited, a spokeswoman for her husband confirmed.
The spokeswoman declined to comment on the fact that Frost is the only one of three bill sponsors from nontobacco states whose family would benefit from the buyout. However, she said there was no conflict of interest.
Etheridge would be allotted $30,971.37 for a quota he owns jointly with his wife in central North Carolina. The couple leased 3.08 acres of their quota in 2004, according to the Harnett County Farm Service Agency. A spokesperson for Etheridge did not return several calls seeking comment.
Ceifer Davis, brother of Lincoln Davis, would receive $26,289 for tobacco grown on a farm in Fentress County, Tenn., according to EWG’s database. In addition, Ceifer Davis would be compensated for a small amount of quota he leases in Pickett County.
“The Fourth district [of Tennessee] alone will reap over $65 million under this tobacco buyout,” said Davis’ press secretary, Tom Hayden, who dismissed any conflict of interest. “This is a great opportunity to help out his constituents and everyone in Tennessee.”
Boucher said he was unable to confirm whether his mother, Dorothy, owned tobacco quota, or how much. “I honestly have never looked to see — she’s never discussed it,” Boucher said. “If she does [own a quota], it’s a small amount. She’s a lawyer, not a farmer.”
Dorothy Boucher would receive $10,145.10 for a quota she leases in Washington County, Va., EWG records show.
Chandler Press Secretary Jason Sauer confirmed that the Congressman’s mother’s side of the family owns a quota and grows tobacco in Woodford County, Ky. Sauer was unable to specify the size of the quota, but said it was “something along the lines of the other Congressmen.”
Sauer rejected the possibility of a conflict of interest. “I think it’s a pretty silly criticism. Certainly in Congressman Chandler’s instance, this is an issue of profound economic importance all across the 16 counties of central Kentucky.”
Not every Member on the tobacco-quota list has much income at stake.
Mary Whitfield, mother of Kentucky Congressman Ed Whitfield, would receive $694 for about a quarter of an acre of inherited tobacco quota she leases in Christian County, Ky., a spokesman confirmed. And Cooper owns and leases a small fraction of a quota in Bedford County, Tenn., a spokeswoman for Cooper confirmed. For that, he could receive $11.89 in buyout compensation.
Despite media reports that the wife of Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) owns a tobacco quota, a spokeswoman for Jones said the Congressman’s wife sold her quota in the past few years.
But one former House Member has quite a lot to gain if a buyout passes. Nearly $1 million would go to former Kentucky Rep. Scotty Baesler (D) for tobacco he rents, owns and grows in Fayette and Clark counties — an amount almost 50 times the average payout of $21,982. Baesler served three terms in Congress before leaving in 1998 to run for a seat in the Senate, a race he lost to now-Sen. Jim Bunning (R).
Aides to Members whose families would receive the most substantial payments said that voting on a tobacco buyout is no different than voting on other legislation, such as a tax cut, that affects lawmakers financially.
But for some critics, merely the perception of impropriety is enough to raise questions.
“Obviously, when you have a personal financial interest in an issue, that raises questions,” said Meredith McGehee, founder of McGehee Strategies and a former top official with Common Cause. “Even if you don’t recuse yourself, at a minimum, I think any Member who has that conflicting financial holding should go on the House floor and should state publicly what that holding is, and indicate why they do not believe they need to recuse themselves.”
Aside from conflict-of-interest concerns, the buyout measure has also stoked controversy over its funding. The bill specifies funding as coming from the general treasury at an amount not to exceed excise taxes on tobacco. “This is paid only by those people who use tobacco — the excise tax,” Jenkins said.
But opponents of the measure counter that taxpayers would ultimately pay for the buyout. “Any way you argue it, the money is coming directly out of the federal treasury and will increase the debt,” said Matt Meyers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
EWG spokesman Jon Corsiglia said the environmental group’s online database — which lists buyout payments for each of the 436,719 quota holders or growers — was designed so that taxpayers could better understand the financial stakes. “We’re talking about real money here,” he said.