WASHINGTON -- Archer Daniels Midland bills itself as the "supermarket to the world." But critics say the agricultural giant has been on its own shopping spree for political favors from the White House and Capitol Hill, buying access and influence with millions of dollars in campaign contributions to Republicans and Democrats alike.
Since 1987, ADM and its affiliates have given more than $1 million to the Republican Party. But ADM isn't partisan: Since 1991, with the rise of Bill Clinton and the Democrats, the company has given the Democratic Party nearly $500,000.
The latest illustration of the company's leverage, critics say, was the Environmental Protection Agency's decision last week to order the addition of corn-based ethanol to gasoline to help reduce air pollution in nine large cities -- including Baltimore.
ADM produces 60 percent to 80 percent of the nation's ethanol, dominating a market that, in part because of the EPA order, could see sales reach $1 billion a year.
The EPA's ruling was made over the objections of some environmentalists and clean-air advocates who say that ethanol will do little to reduce air pollution -- and might even worsen it. The new requirement could also cause gas-pump prices to rise by several cents a gallon.
In addition, there was opposition to the ethanol requirement from within the White House.
Objections, on economic grounds, were raised by the President's Council of Economic Advisers but were overridden by administration officials.
ADM insists that its campaign contributions played no role in the EPA's decision.
"It is always incredible to me that people accuse dedicated public servants of making judgments based on these contributions," Howard Buffett, an ADM vice president, said in a statement.
"This implies that every time you write a check to support the political process, the individual accepting it puts that above his credibility, his integrity, and his service to his constituents."
The White House and EPA officials also argue vehemently that ADM's campaign donations did not affect last week's ethanol ruling. They maintain that the issue was decided on the basis of what's best for the environment and for America's corn growers.
"ADM's political contributions had nothing to do with this decision," said Bill Burton, a lawyer who recently stepped down as deputy assistant to the president.
Although he said that aiding America's corn growers was a factor in the new ethanol regulations, he said allegations that the administration is rewarding ADM "absolutely, unequivocally wrong."
But critics such as Ellen Miller assert that the efforts of ADM and other backers of ethanol played an influential role and demonstrate why corporate political action committees and wealthy executives shower candidates with campaign donations.
'Purveyor of money'
"This is a classic example of how special interests cash in on their investments," said Ms. Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group here that tracks the effects of money on the political system.
For decades, Ms. Miller said, ADM "has been a major purveyor ofmoney in politics. They were one of the largest givers in the last election cycle, and they have a very specific agenda. Their donations are meager in comparison to the benefits they bring."
Politics have swirled around the issue of ethanol and fuel additives for years.
ADM, corn growers and the agriculture lobby have backed ethanol, arguing that adding the corn-based chemical to gas helps car engines run more efficiently and cuts emissions of carbon monoxide.
The natural-gas industry and the petroleum industry have been pushing a rival additive, methanol, which is refined from natural gas.
Ethanol and methanol both have passionate -- and well-financed -- supporters, and the methanol cause is already mounting a campaign to block the new regulations.
But opposition to ethanol isn't confined to natural-gas producers and others with a financial stake in what goes into gasoline. Some environmentalists and state government officials are also critical.
James Strock, secretary of environmental protection for California, called the ethanol requirement "a destructive act." He added that "this will lead to higher emissions of smog-causing compounds, and we already have a tremendous problem with smog in California."
This kind of controversy isn't new for ADM and its chairman, Dwayne D. Andreas.
Long a prominent figure at the intersection of politics and business, Mr. Andreas drew attention during the Watergate scandal 20 years ago for his sizable cash contribution to the re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon.
While EPA officials deny that there was any influence from ADM, many concede that pressure from Capitol Hill is a factor in decisions involving ethanol.
Between 1987 and the end of last year, ADM's political action committee gave more than $750,000 to House and Senate candidates, according to the National Library on Money and Politics, a research group here that compiles information on campaign donations to federal candidates.
Just as the Decatur, Ill., company gives generously to both parties, so they contribute to candidates regardless of party affiliation. Recipients range from prominent Democrats like Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland to Republicans like Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas.