Last week, House Republican leaders brought three animal welfare measures to the floor — a bill to ban the sale of dog and cat meat, a resolution urging other nations to ban that trade too, and a measure to crack down on wildlife trafficking. We were delighted that Republican leaders initiated these floor votes.
It was a memorable day for animal welfare, but it’s important to note that it was the first set of pro-animal welfare measures brought to the House floor since the current Congress convened in January 2017. Earlier in the Congress, Republican leaders pushed ahead a series of extreme anti-wildlife bills to the floor at the behest of the Safari Club International and the NRA.
When you compare the performance of lawmakers from the two parties by looking at their performance in our newly released Congressional Accountability Tool (CAT) you’ll find a 50-point gap between the parties. Just two out of 236 House Republicans (< one percent) had a perfect score on animal issues on the CAT (kudos to Congressmen Brian Fitzpatrick and Peter King), while 125 of 191 House Democrats (> 65 percent) had perfect scores (way too many names to mention, so please scroll through the CAT).
Notice as well that the chairmen of key committees where animal bills are assigned are reliably against animal protection measures. Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte has a score of zero and is even blocking consideration of a bill, the Prevent Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act, that has 282 House cosponsors (including 100 Republicans). Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop has a pitiful score of 10 percent. He refuses to move several non-controversial animal protection bills, such as measures to prevent shark finning and to stop the trade in primates as pets (which passed the House twice when Democrats controlled the chamber). But he’s made time for a flood of bills to gut the Endangered Species Act and to allow a wide range of extreme hunting practices on our public lands.
Given that Republicans control the Congress, and set the agenda, you can’t argue that Democrats are cherry-picking votes to pad their scores. And you can’t argue this just happens to be a bad year. It’s been this way for a long time. A few explanations:
Core constituencies of the Republican Party are partly helping drive voting patterns in Congress.
The Safari Club International and other hunting groups spend their PAC dollars almost exclusively on Republicans, and some of the votes on the CAT reflect the priority-setting of these groups. They pushed the idea of allowing hunters to shoot wolves in their dens or grizzly bears with the aid of aircraft, even though very few rank-and-file hunters countenance this kind of unsporting and unethical behavior. Big agribusiness groups, such as the Farm Bureau and the National Pork Producers Council, drive the Congressional agenda on agriculture issues, defending the misappropriation of federal dollars through check-off programs. The big constituencies that support Democrats, notably labor, women’s groups, and environmentalists, don’t have any general disinclination toward animal protection, and their influence on Democrat lawmakers doesn’t generally lead to adverse outcomes for animals.
Republicans increasingly represent rural America, and Democrats the cities. In rural areas, of course, there’s more hunting and more farming, and people are more accustomed to using animals, with the puppy mill operators and factory farmers making excuses for mistreatment and defending their conduct as some sort of cultural prerogative and an economic necessity. In the cities, people are often removed from the actual killing of the animals, and while they might be unfamiliar with some of the details, they generally are instinctively disinclined toward the mistreatment of animals. Answering to rural constituencies and false perceptions that they are hostile to animal welfare prompts some Republican leaders to push dangerous and cruel practices and fosters skepticism town even common sense and mainstream animal welfare reforms.
“Deregulation,” where animals are concerned, usually means no laws or rules to protect them from abuse.
And standards against cruelty are easily lost in the Republican anti-regulation agenda — whatever good effects it might have elsewhere. The USDA, under this administration, has rolled back an agency “anti-soring” rule — designed to end the intentional infliction of pain to the hooves and limbs of Tennessee walking horses. The USDA also repealed the Organic Livestock and Poultry Protection rule to establish the first-ever federal animal welfare standards for cows, pigs, and chickens on the farm. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has initiated the unwinding of a federal rule that forbids killing grizzly bears and wolves in their dens and the shooting of swimming caribou on 20 million acres of National Park Service lands in Alaska. More than a few Congressional Republicans are on board with these approaches and are pushing for other deregulatory acts, including de-listing wolves in the Great Lakes region (though a fair number of Democrats have also been prepared to exploit the wolves for political gain). On the merits, each one of these changes is hard to defend, but they all get obscured in sterile debates over “needless regulation.”
All that said, there are still quite a few outstanding Republican animal advocates — from Vern Buchanan and Matt Gaetz of Florida to Jeff Denham in California to Christopher Smith of New Jersey to Tom Marino in Pennsylvania to Martha McSally of Arizona. But there is a disturbing “underperformance” by Republicans on animal issues. It shouldn’t be a heavy lift to swing behind reforms that are backed by 90 percent or more of Americans. Opposition to animal cruelty is a universal value and hedging and hemming and hawing about bills to stop shark finning or to stop horse soring are about not close calls. They are about mercy and decency, and about stopping the misuse of power that has always been a hallmark of Republican philosophy.
As for most of the Democrats, with exceptions, they are on the right side of history on this set of issues. When Republicans compete with Democrats and battle against ugly forms of animal exploitation, they’ll win the affections of tens of millions of Americans who know that being good to animals is not only the right thing, but also the politically popular thing to do, too.