Monday, December 20, 2010

The Food-Safety Bill Squeaks Through

Lost in the turmoil over the DREAM Act and DADT, the tax compromise and debate over ratifying the START Treaty, the food-safety bill passed the Senate last night by unanimous consent. Given that it only takes an objection by one Senator to slow down the voting process by several days, and the bill had previously received 25 no votes, its easy passage was an enormous surprise. What happened?

The food-safety bill has been rattling around the Capitol since the early on in the 111th Congress, but despite prompt action by the House, the Senate, in keeping with its “deliberative” nature, dragged its feet. The bill would give the FDA substantially increased regulatory powers and $1.4 billion to hire thousands of new food inspectors, among other things, but it faced considerable opposition. In particular, small producers rose up en masse because the House version would have compelled them to pay substantial inspection fees and achieve the same standards for cleanliness as large producers, which would be both impractical and pointless. (A farmer who slaughters a few of his own grass-fed cattle doesn’t encounter the same issues as corporate operations that process thousands of animals a day in one abattoir.)

In any case, thanks to Jon Tester, Senator from Montana and a former organic wheat farmer, the Senate bill made an exception for “family-scale” operations (note the usual ridiculous conflation of domesticity and agriculture)—farms with annual sales under $500,000. The bill passed the Senate shortly thereafter by a vote of 73-25. While some have called it bipartisan, and it did pick up the support of a number of Republicans, the bill’s supporters were overwhelmingly Democratic.

It appeared, then, that the House needed only to pass its own version of the Senate bill (the language of the two bills must match or else representatives from both houses must reconcile the differences between the chambers, necessitating another vote on the final product) for the bill to advance to Obama’s desk. But then, appallingly, someone discovered that the Senate bill included revenue raising measures that, as directed in the Constitution itself, must originate in the House of Representatives. So the Senate’s efforts were all for naught, and a new bill needed to be advanced. With time short, and other, higher profile bills awaiting consideration, it did not appear that the bill would again be brought up. With Republicans taking over the House next year, this would have likely been the last of the food-safety bill.

The bill’s particular foe was Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who is particularly conservative and rather more ideologically consistent than most of his caucus. He objected to the increase in power for the executive branch through the assumption of new regulatory powers, preferring instead to rely on the power of the market to encourage voluntary self-regulation (not so popular with those who caught salmonella last summer). Joined by a coalition of corporate lackeys (wonder which party will receive more donations from agribusiness this year?) and the ignorant (some observers simply refuse to acknowledge the Tester exemption and treat this bill as the death knell for localism), Coburn stood ready to gum up the Senate if Harry Reid scheduled another vote on the Food-safety bill.

Until last night. Despite overwhelmingly negative predictions by the few observers in the press followed the story, Reid managed to pass the food-safety bill by unanimous consent. Evidently, the dogged Oklahoman blinked. What little has been reported about the bill’s success fails to explain why he stood down, but my guess is that the Senator feared making a futile gesture that would keep the Senate in session through Christmas day. The bill clearly had the votes to pass, and Coburn would have enraged the other Senators if he kept them in DC much longer. Thus, if my hypothesis is correct, this is one of the few times when Democrats have successfully manipulated their opponents into surrender. Hurray for Harry Reid—his recent re-election seems to have been cathartic, if the lame duck session is anything to go by.

The food-safety bill now heads to the House, which will need to vote on it once more before it reaches Obama. Without no filibuster available to the House GOP, its passage is assured, so Obama will sign it shortly. It should be a great relief to food consumers (everybody) that FDA will now be able to force companies to recall most tainted food (not meat, however). We shall have to see how vigorously Republican presidents fulfill the new mandate before rendering final judgment. However, as discouraging as the past couple months have been politically, passing the food-safety bill is a major achievement, and for all the problems with the Democratic leadership, they deserve a great deal of credit on this front.

I took the picture at the top during the summer of 2004, driving through the Palouse region of southeastern Washington State.

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