As House and Senate negotiators work to complete negotiations on the Farm bill – with Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., prodding lawmakers to settle on the terms of food and agriculture policy issues by Labor Day – key Senators are exerting influence on critically important animal welfare issues.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., released a letter this month, signed by 31 colleagues, urging the Senate Agriculture Committee’s top Republican and Democrat to stand firm against an amendment from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, included in the House Farm bill, that “would undermine numerous state laws and infringe on the fundamental rights of states to establish regulations within their own borders.”
The Senators, including Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Robert Casey, D-Pa., Tina Smith, D-Minn., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., from the Agriculture Committee, noted that the King amendment is “drafted in an expansive manner” and could nullify state laws dealing with “invasive pests, infectious disease regulations, health and safety standards, consumer information safeguards, food quality and safety regulations, animal welfare standards, narcotics laws, and fishing regulations.”
There is a careful balance between federal and state authority at play in agriculture policy in the United States, but the King amendment seeks to upend that balance and usurp state authority in a dramatic way. It would put the federal government in charge of almost all legal standards over agriculture, making the states bystanders on key regulatory issues for commodities moved in interstate commerce. It is a federal hijacking of agricultural policy-making, subverting states’ rights when it comes to one of the biggest sectors of the U.S. economy.
But with about a third of all Senators staking out an emphatic and public position against the King amendment, it is difficult to imagine that the overreaching King amendment survives the negotiating process. Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow have repeatedly told colleagues that they want to pass a bill with strong majorities of Republican and Democrats.
House Republican leaders denied King, a senior member of the Agriculture Committee, a position on the conference committee, signaling that even they realize that including his amendment in the final Farm bill would be a drag on the larger bill’s chance of enactment – a sort of poison pill provision.
In other Farm bill news, it looks promising for a series of pro-animal welfare measures that are being actively considered by negotiators. Roberts and Stabenow both appear to be backing the Pet and Women’s Safety Act and the Dog and Cat Meat Prohibition Act. The bulk of House members are already on record in support of these provisions, with free-standing bills to deal with pets and domestic violence and the sale of dog meat each having about 250 House cosponsors.
But the measure that might have a slightly more difficult path to enactment relates to a crackdown on dogfighting and cockfighting. The pro-animal-welfare provision stipulates that dogfighting and cockfighting prohibitions with an interstate commerce component should be evenly applied across the United States, including in U.S. territories. The House adopted the provision, pushed by Peter Roskam, R-Ill., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, by a lopsided margin of 359 to 51; an identical amendment was poised for a similarly lopsided vote in the Senate, but an entirely separate spat over the Farm bill prevented that amendment and dozens of others from being offered on the floor.
Delegates from some U.S. territories are claiming that this proposed change in the law would strip dogfighters and cockfighters of their rights to conduct these activities in the territories (dogfighting is not prohibited in American Samoa or the Northern Marianas Islands). This week, 12 Senators, led by Senators Cory Booker and Susan Collins, urged Roberts and Stabenow to accept the anti-fighting provision adopted by the House. Other signers on this important letter include Senators Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Doug Jones, D-Alabama, and John Kennedy, R-La., who represents the last state that had legal animal fighting.
“Animal fighting is a cruel activity that pits animals against each other, with animals often drugged to heighten their aggression and forced to keep fighting even after they’ve suffered grievous injuries such as broken bones, deep gashes, punctured lungs and pierced eyes,” the lawmakers wrote.
Indeed, no jurisdiction within the U.S. should be an enclave or refuge for this kind of intentional cruelty. “Culture” cannot be a defense for inexcusable abuse that severely harms animals and poses threats to public health and safety. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, backed the anti-animal fighting provision on the House floor, along with more than three-quarters of Agriculture Committee members.
We wouldn’t allow the territories to set up their own rules when it comes to child exploitation or elder abuse. There are some fundamental values in our society, and opposition to the most extreme forms of animal cruelty is one of them. The territorial Delegates’ argument should have no more weight than the past pleadings of a small number of federal lawmakers who years ago argued that dogfighting and cockfighting were traditions worth protecting in their states.
Animal torture is not a states’ rights issue. The federal courts have affirmed that the United States has the authority to regulate interstate commerce associated with dogfighting and cockfighting, and the Congress should exercise that authority and make it tougher for these animal fighting spectacles to occur anywhere in our nation.