Street Talk: Making a Beeline to Washington

Posted March 20, 2009 at 6:03pm

It really is true that everyone — and nearly everything — has a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Honeybees are no exception.

[IMGCAP(1)]There are at least three outside lobbyists who handle the honeybee industry, and at least two prominent beekeepers — from South Dakota and Texas — who are as familiar with the ways of Washington, the arcana of appropriations and the bureaucracy of the Department of Agriculture as anyone inside the Beltway.

Richard Adee, by far the country’s biggest beekeeper with some 75,000 hives, was in the middle of grafting two-day-old worker larvae into queen cells somewhere in Mississippi when he was interrupted by a phone call.

“It takes me a bit of time to get out of this gear,’’ he explained, in a voice that sounded like a man who said he’d been in beekeeping for 50 years.

Adee, from Bruce, S.D., has given more than $20,000 to various political candidates and committees in the past 10 years, almost all of it to Republicans.

But he has no problem stopping by to visit the office of South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson (whom he did support several years ago) when he comes to town.

“South Dakota is nice like that. We don’t have party labels,— Adee said.

The Johnson visit wasn’t strictly a social call. The Office of Budget and Management had recently told the Ag Department’s Agricultural Research Service that it would have to pare $85 million from its $1.1 billion budget for fiscal 2009.

Among those cuts: One of ARS’s four bee research labs in Weslaco, Texas, for a savings of $1.7 million.

Not Really Esoterica

All this might sound like so much esoterica, except that honeybees help keep America eating and are responsible for pollinating from $15 billion to $20 billion worth of food products, including nearly all the country’s almonds, blueberries, squashes, fruit trees and 100 other fruits and vegetables that need pollinating — one in three bites of food, beekeepers like to say.

And for the past couple of years, the bee industry has been dealing with CCD — colony collapse disorder — a mysterious syndrome that has killed large numbers of hives for reasons that no one has definitively explained.

CCD has helped the honeybees’ cause on Capitol Hill: $20 million per year was added in the latest five-year farm bill for CCD research. But only a small portion of that, some $800,000, translated into actual appropriations this year.

“We don’t enjoy the kind of reception with the appropriators we typically get with the Ag committee,— said Danny Weaver, who breeds queen bees, and whose company, B. Weaver Apiaries, is located in Navasota, Texas.

Navasota is in the district of House Appropriations Committee member Chet Edwards (D), who in turn is just one Congressional district away from Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D), who represents Weslaco.

More Firepower

Honeybee producers can also call on the American Honey Producers Association, whose Washington lobbyist is Winston & Strawn partner John Waits.

Ag lobbyists are a small piece of D.C.’s lobby pie, and those who specialize in bees are a microscopic subsection of that. Take Waits, who inherited his client from two former colleagues, Bob Bor and former Rep. Graham Purcell (D-Texas).

Bor had been chief counsel to the House Agricultural committee from 1975 to 1984. Waits was counsel to ag subcommittee chair David Bowen (D-Miss.) from 1979 to 1980. Purcell, who will be 90 in May, was a Member of Congress in the 1960s. The two of them picked up the Honey Producers in 1986.

Waits represents the big honey producers; Fran Boyd of Meyers & Associates works for the little guys, represented by the American Beekeeping Federation, a client that’s been with his firm since Larry Meyers — a one-time legislative director for former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) and director of Ag Congressional affairs in the Carter White House — started his lobby shop in 1981.

Boyd spent the entire 1980s working the Hill for government ag interests, spending five years at the Department of Agriculture and then five years at the Farm Credit Administration.

“My Hill strategy every year is to bring our people in,— he said. “I use my producers to do most of the talking.—

And honeybees aren’t fighting the pollination battle alone. There’s also the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, which respresents wild pollinators like bumblebees as well honeybees. There’s even a Pollinator Action Team, which provides pre-drafted letters asking individual governors to proclaim the week of June 22 “Pollinator Week.—

“I’m a lobbyist, and I’ve represented the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives for 23 years,— said the Pollinator Campaign’s Tom Van Arsdall. “Bees are social animals and they’re very vulnerable.—

Dialoguing All the Time’

All this firepower might explain why, by the time the Fiscal 2009 Omnibus Appropriations bill was signed into law on March 11, the Weslaco lab had been rescued from the chopping block.

Or it may not. Like most every lobby battle, pinpointing just one reason for a victory is usually impossible. In Weslaco’s case, however, there are clear lines of familiarity between a key constituent and a key Member.

But there is also an industry’s more general presence in the whole political mix, and it has nothing to do with money. As Waits puts it, “You have lines open to these folks and you’re dialoguing all the time.—

And there’s the politics of penciling out projects — and penciling them back in.

In fact, many of the projects slated to be closed by the ARS were almost guaranteed to be preserved by someone in Congress.

“They cut programs that never will get approved for cuts,— says one person familiar with the process. “Projects in the districts of chairmen of the Appropriations [Sub]committees, senior members of the Senate.—

Says Van Arsdall: “It’s a common tactic. The administration presents a budget with a number of things taken out, so they’re frugal in their budgeting, but they are things you know the stakeholders will work to get back in. That way, Congress is irresponsible instead of the administration.—

And from a staffer at one of the Congressional appropriations committees: “It’s a numbers game. They’ve been counting on us all these years to bail them out.—

Still, someone has to do the lift. In this case, it appears to have been Edwards and Hinojosa in the House.

“Hinojosa called Chet and asked him to do it,— said Weaver, who was walking through the brush somewhere in New Mexico while talking on his cell phone. “Chet Edwards stuck his neck out and penciled Weslaco back in.—

As did Sen. Johnson, who is also on the Appropriations panel, creating a House-Senate whammy virtually guaranteeing the lab would not close.

In the end, it was most likely the typical lobbying combination of relationships and diligence that brought the Weslaco lab back to life.

“Danny Weaver, he’s down in Grimes County, he’s ours,— said Edwards Chief of Staff Chris Chwastyk. “He pointed out to us how large this issue is to ag overall. A&M’s also big on ag stuff; they have a huge number of scientists.—

Texas A&M is in College Station, which is in Edwards’ district. “Chet went to A&M. There’s only four Aggies in Congress,— Chwastyk explained.

Knowing Weaver and caring about A&M, said Chwastyk, “all made the connections so that it was much easier mentally to restore a project we’d not paid that much attention to before.—