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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Lawmakers Rated on Food and Farm Policy Votes

WASHINGTON - Members of Congress are used to having their votes graded. Dozens of interest groups, from the National Rifle Association to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, keep score, grading lawmakers on how they vote on issues ranging from gun control to legislation that would repeal laws that make marijuana use illegal.

On Wednesday, a coalition of food policy, environmental and antihunger groups, called Food Policy Action, unveiled its own scorecard to grade Congress on how it votes on issues related to food and farm policy. The coalition includes organizations like the National Black Farmers Association and the international antihunger charity Oxfam.

The group's National Food Policy scorecard grades lawmakers based on 32 votes taken during the current Congress on food safety, hunger, farm subsidies, food labeling, organic food and programs to encourage consumption of locally grown food. Each vote is weighed equally, and the score card assigns members grades on a scale of 0 to 100.

The group said the purpose of the scorecard was to elevate food issues in Congress and provide an easily understood system for the public to compare lawmakers on those issues.

“What we have done in a very straightforward, objective way is to let people know how their member of Congress is doing on all the issues about food they keep hearing about - pink slime, farm subsidies or cuts to food stamps,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington research organization, and a board member of the Food Policy Action.

Democrats tended to score higher than Republicans, with several members getting a perfect score. Forty-nine Democrats received a score of 100. Three lawmakers, all Republicans, received a zero grade, including Representative Robert L. Turner of New York. To receive a zero lawmakers would have voted for farm subsidies, opposed li mits to crop insurance programs and voted to cut food stamp benefits, among other things.

But the group pointed out that some Republicans like Senator Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts scored better than many Democrats, including Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Mr. Brown received a score of 78, while Ms. Stabenow, who is chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, received a grade of 61.

Other Agriculture Committee members who help form the nation's food and agriculture policy received low grades. Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, received a grade of 17. On the House side, Representative Frank D. Lucas, Republican of Oklahoma and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, received a 36. Collin C. Peterson, Democrat of Minnesota, a ranking member on the committee, received a 57.

While some lawmakers received low grades, they were praised by members of Food Policy Action for their vote s to curb farm subsidies, an issue that the coalition said had a significant effect on food policy and its rating system.

Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, who received a grade of 11, was given credit for his efforts to tie crop insurance payments to environmental conservation. Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, was given credit for his efforts to limit farm subsidies.

Ultimately, members of the food policy coalition said they hoped the scorecard would make Republicans and Democrats more accountable when it comes to food policy. They said they planned to publicize the ratings, which will be continuing, with editorial boards and other groups.

“This is not partisan at all,” said Tom Colicchio, a celebrity chef on the television program “Top Chef” and a board member of the coalition. “This is about the values we have about where our food comes from and the values that we have that people not go hungry. This is about how our rep resentatives vote on those values.”