Green group marshals top K Street lobbyists to do battle on farm bill

An ardent critic of federal agriculture subsidies has enlisted one of K Street’s premier firms to do battle on this year’s farm bill.

The Environmental Working Group Action Fund — the 501(c)4 affiliate of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) — has signed up Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti to lobby on the legislation.

The support of an established K Street shop could lend heft to what has traditionally been an uphill slog to reform federal farm spending. Scott Faber, EWG's vice president of government affairs, said Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti is "a terrific firm."

“We have retained them to advocate for programs that support stewardship, support healthy diets and reform subsidy programs,” Faber said. “They are a terrific firm and they are doing a fabulous job in sharing our views with lawmakers.”

Faber said EGW hired the firm because this year’s farm bill could have a lasting impact on the country.

“This is a pivotal year because we stand to lose many of the gains made in 25 plus years,” Faber said. “Part of the ‘why’ is this is one of the farm bills that will shape America's farmland, diet and environment for generations to come.”

EWG has been a long-time critic of farm subsidies — arguing much of the funding is a wasteful giveaway to wealthy farmers who don't need the support — while conservation programs suffer from a lack of funding. Agricultural trade groups have backed the subsidies, saying they help mitigate risk for farmers who can see their earnings wiped out by droughts and other natural disasters.

Hired by EWG on March 15, Mehlman Vogel has earned $10,000 in lobbying fees for the past quarter and lobbied on commodity payments, crop insurance and conservation programs, among other issues, records show.

Lobbyists working for the environmental group include Kelly Bingel, former chief of staff to ex-Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Cindy Brown, former chief of staff to Rep. Ron KindRon KindRyan: Pacific deal can't be fixed in time for lame-duck vote House Democrat expects support to grow for Pacific trade deal Hatch: TPP deal can get done in lame-duck session MORE (D-Wis.) and Brian Wild, former senior adviser to House Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerTop Lobbyists 2016: Hired Guns The Hill's 12:30 Report Rep. Meadows to run for Freedom Caucus chairman MORE (R-Ohio).

Lincoln and Kind are veterans of farm bill politics. Kind has been a strong voice for reforming the agriculture programs in the House, while Lincoln was chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee before she was defeated in her 2010 reelection bid.

Faber came to the environmental group in February this year, having been a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Mehlman Vogel lobbied for that trade group for more than a year before parting ways in May 2011, according to lobbying disclosure records.

The firm is among the top 20 lobby shops in Washington for lobbying revenue and continues to grow. For this past quarter, it reported earning $3.3 million in lobbying fees, a 6 percent jump from the $2.9 million it took in for 2011’s first quarter.

EWG is no slouch when it comes to lobbying, either. The group spent more than $82,000 on lobbying last quarter and more than $243,000 for all of 2011, according to lobbying disclosure records.

That kind of lobbying prowess could come in handy as EWG works to change legislation that was marked up by the Senate Agriculture Committee last week.

Faber took issue with a new subsidy created by the bill called the “shallow loss” program, which would give payments to farmers who had small annual losses in farm revenue.

“The committee has produced a bill that would cut funding for anti-hunger and environmental programs to fund a new entitlement for wealthy farmers,” Faber said. “We're expecting the full Senate to take steps to rein in these more generous subsidies.”

Farm groups have said they have been encouraged by action from the committee. In a statement last week, Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said “the bill is not perfect, but it is a suitable policy vehicle with solid framework on which to make further improvements.”

Southern senators have strongly resisted the legislation and pushed for subsidy increases for rice and peanut farmers back home.

Sen. Debbie StabenowDebbie StabenowGreat Lakes senators seek boost for maritime system Podesta floated Bill Gates, Bloomberg as possible Clinton VPs Dems to McConnell: Pass 'clean' extension of Iran sanctions MORE (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has touted the bill’s deficit reduction, estimated to be more than $24 billion by the Congressional Budget Office. This is about $10 billion less than the White House had been seeking and $6 billion less than the House GOP wanted in its budget.

This week, Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackThomas J. VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE told The Hill that House GOP demands to cuts food stamps, conservation and farm subsidies by $200 billion in the House budget were the top obstacle to getting the farm bill done by September when current programs expire.

The farm bill is expected to head to the Senate floor soon.

— Erik Wasson contributed to this report.

This story was corrected on May 9 to accurately reflect EWG's lobbying activities.