The American Prospect is a nonprofit, independent magazine covering public policy and politics. Sludge is re-publishing this article.
Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), the richest person in Congress, likes to talk about her hardscrabble origins. She grew up on a farm in Stanford, Illinois; her campaign bio page features her parading around with livestock. The corn and soybean farm has been in her family for three generations. In her first news conference in January after replacing retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson, she talked about “a rhythm to our lives … We planted in the spring, I showed cattle at the county fair in the summer, and in the fall we harvested.”
Today, Loeffler is worth roughly $500 million. Her husband founded a stock exchange (Intercontinental Exchange, or ICE) and remains its chairman and CEO; she has a majority stake in a WNBA franchise. They live in a 15,000-square-foot estate in Atlanta.
She’s being challenged from the left and the right in a special election in Georgia, and her family fortune often is a topic of discussion. Just last week, Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) accused Loeffler of dangling $50 million for the president’s re-election, but only if he helped get Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) out of the primary race for her seat.
Meanwhile, the Loeffler family farm continues to operate, and several of Loeffler’s family members continue to pull in significant sums of money from government agriculture subsidies. Despite allies of Loeffler slamming her conservative opponent Collins for supporting the farm bill that provides such subsidies to farmers, five of her family members have received more than $3.2 million in federal benefits since 1995. A significant share of that, $770,242, has come since 2018, as a result of farm bailout funds that President Trump has offered to compensate for the trade war with China and the pandemic.
The information is listed publicly in a farm subsidy database maintained by the Environmental Working Group. The nonprofit collects records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through Freedom of Information Act requests and posts them to the database—because the government won’t.
Given that Loeffler’s parents ran their farm until a few years ago, and her brother’s family runs one now, there’s nothing necessarily illegal about them receiving millions in subsidies. But the nature of the farm subsidy program itself hardly aligns with Loeffler’s election campaign promotion of herself as “more conservative than Attila the Hun.”
Extended family members can take an on-paper share of the ownership in a farm and become eligible themselves for annual payments, as has apparently happened in the Loeffler family case. And money from farm subsidies typically flows to the biggest farms. An EWG analysis of the recent bailout program finds that the top 10 percent of farms received more than half of all the payments. This is generally in line with farm subsidies overall. “They are designed to send most money to those with most acres and most crops,” says Anne Schechinger, a senior economic analyst with the EWG.
Moreover, the $770,000 in farm subsidy payments to the Loeffler family over the past two years represents .15 percent of Kelly Loeffler’s total net worth. While she’s not obligated to personally bail out her family, her public policy posture of calling for reducing $600 a week payments to unemployed workers, so they can “get back to work and limit government dependency,” is a tough fit with the millions in government welfare flowing to her family members.
The Loeffler campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Don and Lynda Loeffler, Kelly’s parents, were lifelong corn and soybean farmers. Don also ran a trucking business that moved farm equipment. Since 1995, Don has received $1,284,673 in federal government funds for crop subsidies, and Lynda has received $214,746.
The couple retired in 2015, according to this local newspaper announcement of their 50th wedding anniversary. Despite that, Don continued to receive subsidies through federal conservation programs in subsequent years, totaling close to $6,000.
Brian and Mary Angela (Molly) Loeffler, Kelly’s brother and sister-in-law, have also received farm subsidies, as part of the family business. Brian, 48, has received subsidies dating back as far as the EWG database goes, including in 1995, when he was 23 years old. With $1,316,998 in benefits, Brian has received more in subsidies than anyone in the Stanford, Illinois zip code. (Don Loeffler is in second place.)
Molly Loeffler began to receive farm subsidies in 2008, after her marriage to Brian. Her lifetime total is $671,142. A son, Collin Loeffler, also has received $16,454 in subsidies, starting in 2013. His age is undisclosed.
Brian is by all accounts a successful farmer; last year he won a McLean County (Illinois) Chamber of Commerce Agriculture Award for “farmer of the year.” But the trade war with China, and later the pandemic, created difficulties, particularly for corn and soybean farmers. The White House employed a New Deal-era program called the Commodity Credit Corporation to essentially fund a bailout for the wound its trade policy had inflicted on farmers.
Roughly $23 billion has been distributed to farmers under the Market Facilitation Program (MFP), and another $5 billion under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). Authorizing another $30 billion to fund these programs was a key sticking point of the government funding legislation that passed Congress this week; eventually Democrats allowed the $30 billion in exchange for $8 billion in nutrition assistance for needy families.
Brian Loeffler and his wife applied for and received $744,968 in MFP payments in 2018 and 2019, according to EWG records. Collin Loeffler also received $11,089. In addition, the Loefflers received $17,560 in CFAP payments through June 30 of this year. Molly Loeffler’s receipt of $375,000 under MFP represents the maximum amount allowable in 2018 and 2019 for that program. Traditional commodity subsidy programs max out at $125,000 annually per farmer.
Schechinger, of the EWG, questions the utility of CFAP payments at this point, with exports back to near normal levels. “There’s a lot of question if farmers even need this money,” she says. “Corn prices are at their highest level since February. It’s a question of whether Trump just wants to do another round [of payments] two months before the election.” The newest batch of CFAP money, Schechinger adds, disproportionately benefits corn farmers like Brian and Molly Loeffler, of which there are many in important swing states for President Trump, such as Iowa.
As a senator, Kelly Loeffler has been calling for a “fair playing field” for farmers in Georgia. But the Club for Growth, a 501(c)(3) dark-money organization that is backing Loeffler in her special election, attacked her opponent Doug Collins in an ad for voting to “waste billions in welfare boondoggles.” The legislation it was referring to was the farm bill that passed in 2018. And the welfare boondoggles in question included the very farm subsidy payments that Loeffler’s family has enjoyed for decades.
Loeffler campaign spokesperson Stephen Lawson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “it’s unclear how much her family’s farm received in subsidies, since some of the land has been sold over the last decade and a half.” But Don Loeffler is still receiving conservation program money, despite having retired a half-decade ago. And Brian and Molly Loeffler are maxing out on farm bailout funds. For a senator who routinely decries “taxpayer dollars” going out in the form of subsidies and transfers, it’s not the best look.
Loeffler’s own finances came under question in the spring, after allegations that she had sold $20 million in stock in the days after a closed-door briefing on the coronavirus in February, before the market crashed. There is no indication that Loeffler has personally received farm subsidies, though examples of extended family members who don’t work in farming getting farm payments are common. An EWG study in 2017 found that 33 members of Congress received farm subsidies between 1995 and 2016, totaling at least $15.3 million. “You don’t have to do hardly anything to get a subsidy,” Schechinger says.
All candidates will be on the ballot in the Georgia Senate special election in November, and the top two will proceed to a runoff on January 5, 2021. Polling has been tight, with Loeffler, Collins, and Democratic candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock all bunched at the top. Matt Lieberman, a businessman and son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, is also on the ballot, and his presence could lock Democrats out of the runoff.
Just this week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) introduced a bill that would force members of Congress and other high-ranking executive and judicial branch officials to disclose when they apply for financial benefits from the government. The bill would not affect the families of members of Congress, like the Loefflers.