U.S. House Passes PACT Act, Bringing Nation One Step Closer to Enacting Federal Anti-Cruelty Law

Most states adopted anti-cruelty statutes in the 19th century. Now knee-deep into the 21st century, the federal government still has no anti-cruelty statute. But yesterday the U.S. House took an unhesitating step toward remedying this gross deficiency in our legal framework by passing  H.R. 724, the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act.

Sponsored by Reps. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., and Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., PACT passed the House with dozens of lawmakers speaking or issuing statements in support and not a peep of opposition from even a single lawmaker.

“Today’s vote is a significant milestone in the bipartisan quest to end animal abuse and protect our pets,” said U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch.

“The torture of innocent animals is abhorrent and should be punished to the fullest extent of the law,” wrote U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan.

“As a former FBI agent,” intoned Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., “I know about the agency’s profiling studies showing how violence against animals escalates to human violence.”

“Animal cruelty is abhorrent and there should be legal consequences for someone who purposely tortures animals,” offered Ben McAdams, D-Utah.

“The PACT Act would give federal law enforcement and prosecutors the tools they need to combat extreme animal cruelty,” added Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., who led the effort to upgrade Pennsylvania’s anti-cruelty law when he served in the state legislature.

The federal measure, building on a 2010 statute that bars the sale of videos showing illegal acts of animal cruelty, would make it a federal crime to torture an animal in cases where acts of intentional cruelty affect interstate or foreign commerce, on federal property, or “in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States.” It also makes it a federal crime to engage in sexual exploitation of animals; Hawaii, New Mexico, West Virginia, and Wyoming have no laws banning bestiality (Kentucky only banned the practice this year).

While the lopsided outcome yesterday might suggest that passing PACT in the House was a cinch, it’s been anything but that. It’s been five years after I first introduced the idea of a national anti-cruelty statute to several animal-friendly Senators and Representatives.  It’s been a slog, and a frustrating one.

To be fair, the Senate took up the idea with vigor. With their careful and determined leadership, Senators Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., led their chamber in passing the PACT Act in 2016 and again in 2017 by Unanimous Consent on both occasions.

The problem was the House. To be more precise, one House member. There, then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte – a major proponent of horse slaughter, trophy hunting, and private ownership of dangerous exotics – stood in the way of the bill almost as a point of pride in fighting animal protection groups, even after he had been presented with information regarding bestiality that occurred in his own district.  Despite a respected member of their caucus carrying the bill – former U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith from Texas — House Republican leadership let the ill-tempered Goodlatte get away with his petty obstructionism.

When Democrats took the House, Deutch took the lead on the bill and he enlisted Buchanan as his co-author (Like Goodlatte, Lamar Smith retired last year). Together, Deutch and Buchanan – getting an amazing assist from AWA legislative director Holly Gann and so many advocates who called, wrote, and agitated in favor of the bill – picked up 300 cosponsors. That mass of supporters triggered a new House rule – a rule pushed by the Problem Solvers Caucus, led by Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Tom Reed, R-N.Y. – that requires floor action on any measure with 290 or more cosponsors.

The Senate, which had been patiently to see if the House would finally act on PACT, can now finish the job. Toomey and Blumenthal have nearly 40 Senators on S. 479 as cosponsors.

Numerous studies show that animal cruelty is often a warning sign that the perpetrator of the crime will become violent toward people. For that reason, along with our visceral disgust for malicious cruelty and our empathetic response for its victims, it’s become part of our value system in the United States to stand against this kind of calculated violence against the least powerful among us. Local, state, and federal government have a duty to create legal strictures against this cruelty for the benefit of people and animals.

If there was ever a no brainer, this is it. Passing a law to combat malicious cruelty should take 5 minutes, not 5 years.  But here we are, and it’s time for lawmakers in both parties to finish the job.  The House has now done its job. For the Senate, the third time may be the charm.

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