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Glenn "GT" Thompson
House Agriculture Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson speaks on the House floor. House Television via AP

Lawmakers Struggle With Whether to Keep the Cash From This Chinese Company

Republicans and Democrats are expressing concern over China’s influence in U.S. farming, but those concerns aren’t stopping most of them from taking donations from one of China’s largest state-owned agricultural companies.

As Republicans and Democrats grapple with China’s influence over U.S. agriculture and food supply, many of the lawmakers now addressing those issues are facing a complicated decision: Whether to take money from one of China’s largest state-owned agricultural companies or whether to return it.

Syngenta, which produces seeds and chemicals for agricultural use, reported over $32 billion in sales for 2023. But the company is owned by Chinese state-owned enterprise Sinochem, and many lawmakers are expressing concerns about China’s “increasing dominance” over U.S. farming. (Syngenta was actually fined $280,000 in Arkansas last October for failure to report foreign ownership in a timely manner.)

Over the past five election cycles, however, Syngenta’s corporate and employee PACs have funneled around $1.2 million to congressional campaigns and leadership PACs. About $290,000 of that came this cycle, with roughly $250,000 directed to Republicans. For many of the candidates who have taken money from Syngenta before, they’re now seeing even higher donations this time cycle. And while some lawmakers are giving the money back, most are keeping it for their campaigns.

Recipients of Syngenta’s cash include Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, who serves as the top Republican on the Senate’s Agriculture Committee. He’s received $21,000 from Syngenta since 2016, $10,000 of which came this cycle.

Asked if he’d considered returning the contributions, Boozman simply told NOTUS, “I haven’t thought about it.” He and his office declined further comment, though Syngenta was ordered to sell off farmland in Boozman’s home state to comply with an Arkansan law prohibiting some foreign parties from purchasing or holding land.

Republican Rep. Randy Feenstra of Iowa, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, has received $18,500 from Syngenta since 2020, with $10,000 of the haul coming this cycle.

But Feenstra and his staff don’t seem to want to talk about the donations. Asked about Syngenta last week in the Capitol, a staffer quickly interjected and stopped the hallway interview. “I think we’re not gonna do this,” the staffer said.

Feenstra tried to answer the question anyway —“A lot of people have given me donations,” he said — but again, the staffer cut him off. “We’re gonna move on,” the staffer said.

No. 2 Senate Republican John Thune of South Dakota has received $23,500 between his campaign and leadership PACs since 2015. About $10,000 of that total came just this cycle. Asked if he’d considered returning the money, Thune claimed ignorance.

“I don’t know the answer to that question. I wasn’t aware we take money from them,” he said.

A follow-up email to his campaign about the money went unanswered.

Of course, it’s not just Republicans taking money from Syngenta. Democratic Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware, who is running for Senate, has received $14,500 since 2017, with $7,500 of the donations coming this cycle. Asked if she would consider returning Syngenta’s money, she told NOTUS she hadn’t “talked to my team about that.”

A campaign spokesperson for Blunt Rochester said she had “repeatedly stood up to Chinese entities and held China accountable, and will continue to do so in the Senate.”

Syngenta's Minneapolis headquarters
The headquarters of Syngenta in Minnetonka, Minnesota. Jim Mone/AP

Syngenta has also given Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan $13,000 since 2015. When NOTUS asked him about the donations, he said he was “not familiar with them.”

“And I’m not even running again,” he added.

For the lawmakers who knew about Syngenta, many didn’t think the company’s ties to China warranted giving back the money. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson said refunding Syngenta’s money wasn’t “necessary or needed.” He’s received $20,000 since 2019, half of which came this cycle. (Thompson is also the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, which just advanced a new farm bill.)

“I don’t see Syngenta as a threat to our national security. In terms of American agriculture being based on science, technology and innovation, an organization like Syngenta actually contributes to that in a significant way,” Thompson said.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who’s received $13,500 since 2020, also said he wouldn’t be giving the money back.

Grassley told NOTUS he has two principles on receiving campaign contributions: “If it’s legal, if there are no strings attached.”

However, some members don’t think the Syngenta money is worth the trouble.

This cycle, Syngenta donated to GOP Rep. Derrick Van Orden of Wisconsin for the first time, to the tune of $5,000. He refunded it in March. Van Orden said he’s given his fundraising team a directive that they don’t want money from any Chinese state-owned companies, including Syngenta.

“I don’t think members of Congress should be accepting money from the Chinese Communist Party,” he told NOTUS last week. “That contribution showed up, and I’m like, ‘What the heck?’”

Van Orden didn’t want to comment on the other lawmakers who were keeping the money. “I think if we focus more individually on our own actions and for our district, it’d be better. But I’m not accepting any money from the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. But he’s not alone in returning the donations.

Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington received $16,500 from Syngenta between 2015 and 2022. In May 2022, however, he gave it all back.

“It just seemed to be the appropriate thing to do since I was working on legislation that probably was not in their interest, and it gives me a clear-eyed ability to work on legislation,” Newhouse told NOTUS in the Capitol last week.

In February 2023, Newhouse introduced legislation that sought to prohibit foreign nationals associated with the Chinese government from purchasing public or private U.S. agricultural land. Multiple recipients of Syngenta donations were co-sponsors of that bill.

Lawmakers have introduced a number of bills that would affect Syngenta’s business, many of them written or co-sponsored by Syngenta contribution recipients. The House Agriculture Committee actually held a hearing in March on China’s influence over U.S. farming, at which Chairman Thompson said China’s threat to American food security and the ability of U.S. farmers to compete globally was “multifaceted, strategic, and incendiary and require a coordinated and proactive response.”

As the House and Senate work on a new farm bill, both chambers are looking at provisions to increase transparency around foreign entities that own American land.

It’s, of course, common for companies to donate to the lawmakers most influential in that company’s field. Rather than a scandal, that’s business as usual on Capitol Hill. But as lawmakers call out China’s influence on U.S. agriculture — and look at the country increasingly as a threat and less as an ally — it’s notable how many Republicans and Democrats are hanging on to the company’s donations.

As Newhouse put it, he returned the money because he wanted to be “unhampered by any influence one way or the other.”

As for his colleagues, Newhouse told NOTUS it was “not my judgment to make.”

“Everybody has to make that decision for themselves,” he said.

Nuha Dolby is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.