Big Lick Animal Cruelty: Oliver Potts and the USDA Regulatory Debacle

Last week I shared the story of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act’s failure in 2014, and ultimate passage of the renamed U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings Memorial PAST Act in 2019, H.R. 693. And while I briefly touched on the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s failed anti-soring regulations, you may have wondered what occurred in the five-year span leading up to the Tydings’ PAST Act’s passage in the House.

On July 31, 2014 when I learned House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio had caved-in to political pressure from the pro-soring coalition and refused to advance the PAST Act to a vote, I knew we must find a different path forward to end soring.  Still working in Congress, I immediately consulted with my now-colleague, Wayne Pacelle, and we devised a strategy to advance USDA regulations to ban the use of the large-stacked shoes and ankle chains placed on horses’ feet to exacerbate pain caused from chemical soring and eliminate the industry’s failed self-policing program. Two of the three main components the PAST Act would have mandated by statute.

I had long-known that the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture had published a statement in the Federal Register in April of 1979 – just a few months before I was born – that if soring persisted USDA would consider removing the stacked-shoes and ankle chains. Horse advocates had made attempts to achieve that end in 1988 with a judicial mandate that ultimately led to the reduction of the size of the shoes and chains instead of elimination, and again in 2012 when listening sessions were held in Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, California, and Maryland. Ultimately, both attempts failed, and not much changed in the way of soring practices.

But in the wake of Boehner’s decision, I saw a window of opportunity to achieve regulatory reform and convinced U.S. Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. to lead a Congressional sign-on letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urging him to enact regulations to end soring. With 164 bipartisan Members of the House signed on, Whitfield and I pressed Vilsack for weeks and ultimately secured a direct discussion with the Secretary in August of 2014. We were both quite surprised to learn of Vilsack’s knowledge on the subject of soring, and willingness to work with us. In the meantime, Wayne directed litigation specialists at his disposal to file a formal petition for federal rule-making on the issue, and we were off and running.

We spent the better part of the next two-years working to achieve those regulations and faced many setbacks along the way. Initially, attorneys at USDA who drafted the regulations failed miserably in their first attempt by applying them to all equine breeds which set off a firestorm of fury within the American Saddlebred world and American Horse Council. Veterinarian Reps. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., a large animal equine vet, and Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, were then joined by more than 150 Members of the House in asking Vilsack to clarify the language and apply it only to Tennessee Walking, Racking, and Spotted Saddle Horses. The language clarifications cost us precious time and the clock was ticking fast as Vilsack’s term in office was quickly coming to a close.

In September of 2016, the U.S. Senators from Tennessee and Kentucky, pressed Vilsack for further extension of a comment period on the regulations in an effort to stall the effort, and Vilsack granted their wish. I spoke directly with Secretary Vilsack follow that action and he conveyed to me that he granted the extension to keep “the boys on the Hill happy,” but that he promised to get the rules done before he left office – and he kept his word. On the very last afternoon President Obama’s longest serving cabinet member held office, Tom Vilsack announced the finalization of the USDA regulations to ban large-stacked shoes and ankle chains in the showring and eliminate the industry’s corrupt inspection scheme.

A days later – Ironically enough – I happened to be at lunch with former U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings the moment some tragic news came: the Director of the Federal Register, Oliver Potts, sternly refused to publish Vilsack’s regulations in the Federal Register, preventing them from becoming official. Tydings and I were together that day as we prepared to honor him with an award at the National Press Club for his half a century of work on the issue of soring. To this day, I am convinced there was some allegiance between the Tennessee and Kentucky Senators that caused Potts to be so stubborn.

And while colleagues who weren’t well-versed in understanding the processes to finalize regulations and lacked political savvy and know-how were celebrating the regulations with cake and champagne in Gaithersburg, MD, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, myself, Wayne, Whitfield, and Priscilla Presley all “burned the midnight oil” pressing Potts to reconsider.

I went as far as reaching the Directors of the Whitehouse Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and Office of Personnel Management (OPM), along with the head of the Government Printing Office (GPO), and attempted to get the Federal Register published on Inauguration Day for the first time in American history. We even reached Vice-President Joe Biden’s office, but with only hours left in the Obama Administration, our efforts failed and President Trump’s Administration rolled-back all unpublished regulations. Once again, in keeping with the six-decade long trend, our effort was obliterated, and the pro-soring coalition dodged a speeding bullet that would have led to the death of the “big lick” animal cruelty.

We have to give the “big lick” crowd a token of credit, they have successfully perpetuated the soring culture, and walk lock-step together, something the sound horse and animal protection side of the issue has never been able to do.

I’ll be back next week with more insight on where we are in 2021, and how the landscape looks ahead. In the meantime click here to take action and tell USDA’s APHIS Administrator Kevin Shea to crackdown on soring at the upcoming “Heart of Dixie” championship in Philadelphia, MS.

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