The D.C. Circuit Subjects USDA Pork Barrel Politics to Scrutiny – Will the Lower Court Bring Home the “Economic Liberties” Bacon?

Alden Abbott —  18 August 2015

Recently, I discussed at this site the Supreme Court’s imposition of takings liability on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”), because USDA fined a small raisin grower for refusing to cooperate with the California Raisins Marketing Order – which, stripped of the fancy verbiage, is little more than a government-supervised output limitation cartel.  The California raisin cartel is far from unique.  There are many other USDA cartels (and analogous regulatory schemes) out there, the bitter fruits of anti-consumer and corporatist New Deal economic policy.  On August 14, in Humane Society of the United States v. Thomas J. Vilsack, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, applying standing doctrine, took the knives to a less obviously anticompetitive, but no less pernicious, USDA agricultural order, the “Pork Order,” promulgated pursuant to the infelicitously named Pork Act (7 U.S.C. §§ 4801-19).

The case was filed in federal court by Harvey Dillenburg (a pork producer) and two organizations whose members include pork producers against the National Pork Board, claiming that it misappropriated millions of dollars from a fund for pork promotion into which all pork producers are required by law to contribute for the benefit of a trade association that is funded and controlled by large pork producers.  The district court dismissed the case for lack of standing, but that decision has now been reversed by the D.C. Circuit.  It is to be hoped that upon remand, the district court will take the next step and slaughter the Pork Order, thereby “bringing home the economic liberties bacon.”  Such an outcome would strike at the abuse of governmental processes by well-organized, powerful businesses, one of the worst aspects of crony capitalism.

The D.C. Circuit’s summary description of the case is instructive:

“The National Pork Board [Board] is a quasi-governmental entity responsible for administering a federal regulatory scheme known as the ‘Pork Order[,]’ [which implements] . . . the Pork Act, . . . the purpose of which is to promote pork in the marketplace. . . .  The Board strengthens, maintains, develops, and expands markets for pork and pork products through research and consumer information campaigns. In exchange for the Board’s efforts on behalf of their industry, pork producers pay the Board a special assessment on each hog they import or sell. . . . 

In 2006, the Board, with the approval of the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, bought four trademarks associated with the slogan Pork:  The Other White Meat . . . from the National Pork Producers Council [Council], an industry trade group, for $60 million.  [Footnote deleted which explains that the USDA Secretary is charged by statute with reviewing the Pork Board’s actions, but that the reviewing court attributes those actions to the Board.]  The payment terms provide that the Board will pay the Council $3 million annually for twenty years. The Board can terminate the payments at any time with one year’s notice, in which case ownership of the phrase reverts back to the Council. Five years after buying the mark, the Board replaced it with a new motto, Pork:  Be Inspired. Now the Board keeps the initial slogan around as a “heritage brand” that it does not feature in its advertising.

The plaintiffs claim that the Board did not buy the slogan for its value as a marketing tool. They allege that the Board used the purchase of the slogan as a means to cut a sweetheart deal with the Council to keep the Council in business and support its lobbying efforts. They maintain that the Board overpaid for the slogan and that the Board’s shift to the Pork: Be Inspired campaign makes the initial slogan all but worthless.  According to the plaintiffs, the purchase of the mark and continued payment for it was and is arbitrary and capricious.  The plaintiffs also argue that the Board’s purchase of the slogan with the purpose of supporting the Council’s lobbying efforts violates the Pork Act and Order’s prohibitions against the Board spending funds to influence legislation.

The plaintiffs sued the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture under the Administrative Procedure Act seeking an order enjoining the Board’s further payments to the Council and directing the Secretary to claw back what payments he can from the deal.  The district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ suit for lack of Article III standing. . . .  The court held that Dillenburg failed to establish an injury in fact fairly traceable to the Board’s actions that is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision. . . .  It also held that the two plaintiff organizations could not establish standing to sue in their own right or on behalf of their pork-producing members. . . .

[W]e reverse and remand [to the district court].  This case involves a concrete and particularized harm caused by an agency’s failure to confer a direct economic benefit on a statutory beneficiary. We also reject the government’s argument that the plaintiffs have failed to exhaust their administrative remedies.  The statute’s provision for administrative review would not offer the plaintiffs adequate relief, and therefore they were not required to pursue it.”

This case is an example of rent-seeking in action, and, in particular, the abuse of regulatory processes to impose disproportionate costs on less-connected rivals (a phenomenon well-documented in public choice analysis of regulation), as further revealed in the D.C. Circuit’s opinion.  The Council, as a private trade organization, could not require all pork producers to join it and pay dues to support institutional advertising and other pork-related promotional activities.  The Council, however, achieved its goal indirectly by establishing and manipulating government regulation.  It successfully lobbied for passage of the Pork Act, proposed the text that ultimately served as foundation for the Pork Order, and used the Board to exercise regulatory authority over all pork producers.  Part of that exercise of regulatory authority involved the Board’s agreement to pay the Council $60 million for “The Other White Meat” mark.  This fee inevitably would be passed on to all pork industry members (including those that were not members of the Council), which are required by force of law to render payments to the Board.

The Board’s regulatory capture by the Council (the “big industry members’” lobby) is apparent, as further revealed in the Court’s opinion:

“Even though the Board paid for the mark’s development, the Council registered the mark in its own name and as its sole owner. . .  The Board and the Council were so enmeshed that, in 1986 when the Board voted to adopt the campaign [to promote the Other White Meat mark] and so committed itself to spend tens of millions of dollars in assessment funds over two decades on the promotion, it did not execute any licensing agreement or fee contract to formalize that arrangement. . . . [USDA’s] Office of Inspector General concluded in a 1999 audit that the Board ‘had relinquished too much authority to its primary contractor, the [Council], and ha[d] placed the [Council] in a position to exert undue influence over Board budgets and grant proposals.’  That history . . . raises a plausible inference that the Board’s purchase was not the product of arm’s length negotiation.

[Moreover], [b]efore the Board entered the . . . [subsequent formal] licensing agreement [for the Other White Meat mark], the Board’s own economist recommended that the Board pay no more than $375,000 annually to license the mark. . . .  [Furthermore], facts plausibly show[] that, whatever its value when the Board purchased it, the [Other White Meat] mark is no longer worth $3 million per year.”

A more compelling judicial account of the manipulation of government authority to achieve the aims of an organized private lobbying group (namely, using government to foist its promotional and licensing costs on the less-well-connected rivals of the lobbying organization’s members) is hard to imagine.

In conclusion, while the Pork Order in and of itself may have only limited economic impact, it is symptomatic of the more general problem of rent-seeking-induced special interest regulation (both federal and state) that, collectively, imposes enormous costs on the American economy.  It is also emblematic of the existence of countless federal government programs for which there is no principled justification in our republic, based on a federal Constitution that establishes limited enumerated powers and focuses on restricting government incursions into individual liberties.  It is to be hoped that the federal courts will keep this in mind and use their full panoply of constitutional tools in empowering private parties to fight cronyist governmental programs.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.