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Editorial: ‘Crony capitalism at its worst’

In President Obama’s era of pretend historic transparency, not even the groups responsible for clever marketing campaigns such as “Got Milk,” “The Incredible Edible Egg” and “Pork, the Other White Meat” are immune from seeking to keep the public in the dark about their dealings.

Congress is urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exempt several enterprises behind promotional campaigns for beef, eggs, milk and other commodities from the Freedom of Information Act, which is supposed to ensure that government records are available to the public. A provision supporting the change was included in spending legislation approved by a House panel in April.

These promotional and research organizations are funded by agricultural producers and overseen by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

The programs are subject to government oversight to ensure they practice generic promotion methods and avoid lobbying efforts that some farmers might find disagreeable. The House Appropriations Committee, however, wants the USDA to recognize that these groups are “not agencies of the federal government.” As a result, they would not have to comply with freedom of information requests.

The committee’s action comes after emails obtained by the Associated Press last year showed that the American Egg Board tried to block the sale of an egg-free mayonnaise alternative at Whole Foods stores. The controversy — which offers a wonderful example of exactly why secrecy is a horrible idea — triggered an ongoing investigation into the board’s apparent “efforts to limit competing products in commerce.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R.-Utah, who is spearheading the probe, recently told Fortune magazine that “this is crony capitalism organized by Washington at its worst,” adding, “Not only is the federal government forcing market participants to collude, it is then actively engaging in a cover up of that collusion.”

Exactly.

In the first place, participation in these groups should be voluntary. Forcing producers to contribute to these campaigns violates their rights of free speech and assembly.

As voluntary associations, they would have an excellent argument regarding their exemption from government open records laws. But they are not voluntary associations, given that the government compels farmers to financially support these efforts. As such, they should most certainly be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Congress should back off. Otherwise, it risks laying an indefensible egg.

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