Lumps of Coal in the House-Passed Farm Bill

December 10, 2013 | 3:43 pm
Celia Wexler
Former contributor

There’s an old and well honored legislative strategy of tucking otherwise unacceptable and noxious proposals into must-pass bills. The hope is that House and Senate members, seeking compromise on a final piece of legislation, may be so relieved to get a deal on the big-ticket items that some of the smaller bits can get through, too.

Senator Stabenow, one of the leaders of the farm bill conferees, needs to make sure that the farm bill passes without any lumps of coal. (Photo: Flickr user Senator Stabenow)

Senator Stabenow, one of the leaders of the farm bill conferees, needs to make sure that the farm bill passes without any lumps of coal. (Photo: Flickr user Senator Stabenow)

Right now, the House and Senate are seeking to close an agreement on a comprehensive farm bill, crucial to the future of food stamps, farm subsidies and programs that UCS has long supported such as the Farmers Market Promotion Program, which would help American families eat more healthily through targeted grants to local and regional food projects. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (MI), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee,  has a huge challenge in trying to come to terms with her House counterparts who’d like to cut our food stamp program by $40 billon.

But the farm bill is not just about the big-ticket items. Unfortunately, the farm bill offers opportunities to those who wish to stymie federal agency science, protective state regulation, or citizen access to information.

A few bad riders 

In the House-passed farm bill are many noxious lumps of coal that could make it into the final law. These riders range from the unwise to the outrageous. They have been opposed by groups that care about transparency in government, scientific integrity, and public protections. They are demonstrably bad.  But that doesn’t mean they won’t gain traction.

My favorite lump of coal is the erroneously named “Sound Science” bill, which I’ve already discussed in an earlier post. It’s a classic attempt to block federal agencies from taking any action to protect the environment and public health and safety through paralysis by analysis. This bill is now Sec. 12307 of the House-passed farm bill. It would require virtually any significant agency policies, including not only rules but also guidance documents and scientific assessments of risk, to go through many additional procedural hurdles, offering special interests new opportunities to challenge agency science. If an agency refused to jump through these new procedural hoops, any action it took could be challenged in court.

And there are many, many other lumps of coal. The “King” amendment has gained a good deal of publicity because it is so over-the-top it’s hard to believe anyone could take it seriously. Rep. Steve King was miffed at California for imposing more human standards on the treatment of livestock that would make it more difficult for livestock producers in his home state of Iowa to market their products there. But his amendment is so broad, it also guts efforts by states to protect their citizens from foodborne illnesses.

Generally speaking, conservative members like King trumpet the primacy of states’ rights. But not when it interferes with the priorities of agribusiness.

Another rider gives one agency—namely the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)—the right to scrutinize and possibly challenge regulations or policies the Environmental Protection Agency may contemplate that may affect agricultural producers. Not only would the rider require the USDA’s chief economist to do an assessment of the economic impacts of a proposed regulation and any other future EPA policies on agriculture producers, the USDA also must convene a panel to review the EPA’s proposed actions and the comments from farm interests that the USDA solicits.

Also snuck into the bill are a couple of provisions that would let big agricultural livestock operations keep even basic information about their businesses, even their location and phone numbers, from being disclosed to the public. The FOIA provisions were prompted by the Environmental Protection Agency’s inadvertent disclosure of the private information of thousands of farmers in response to a Freedom of Information request from three environmental groups about confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The private data should have been redacted, and the EPA moved quickly to try to rectify the error, asking the groups in question to destroy the documents and sending them redacted versions.  Imposing a gag order on the disclosure of even basic information about huge livestock operations is an over-reaction.  I don’t know about you, but I think I have a right to know whether thousands of pigs are being raised near my source of drinking water.

These lumps of coal are bad on their own, and what makes them worse is that they largely have not received the public scrutiny they deserve. That secrecy sabotages democracy. And that’s a holiday gift nobody wants.