Yesterday, I was feeling both cynical and depressed about the state of affairs in Washington. The farm bill had been approved, but certainly it wasn’t the ideal. While urging passing of the bill, our Food and Environment program, while appreciative of some of the progress it made, acknowledged its limitations and its unfulfilled potential. Many of us also are keenly aware that food stamp cuts of billions of dollars may compromise the well-being of tens of thousands of American families.
That said, we must not forget in all our justifiable disappointment that the farm bill contained a ticking bomb that UCS, with the help of thousands of our members and supporters and our coalition colleagues, was able to defuse.
Our efforts are not getting the attention of the media. But if we had not acted, it would have been easy for this time bomb to have detonated, leaving the science enterprise at our federal agencies in shambles.
The disaster we averted? Section 12307 of the House-passed farm bill, the erroneously named “sound science” provision. I’ve written about this poison pill before, when it was a legislative proposal advanced by Rep. Stephen Fincher. But then, the proposal was secretly inserted into the House-passed farm bill and became a real threat.
In a nutshell, the proposal would have made it nearly impossible for all agencies to protect public health and safety and the environment. It would have imposed new procedural hoops for agency policies, including not only rules, but also guidance documents, labeling requirements and risk assessments. And it would have made it far easier for wealthy special interests to have challenged science-based policies in court, and to win.
Why was such a bad idea a threat? Because House and Senate negotiators were trying desperately to find compromise between two drastically different approaches to farm policy. We were told repeatedly by Senate staff that this provision—whether it stayed in the final farm bill or was cut—would be decided by the Members, not their staffs. That sent the message to us that this provision remained on the table and despite the very good intentions of many farm bill leaders, we couldn’t count on it going away.
Which is why UCS sprang into action, working with many like-minded coalition partners, and also engaging our thousands of members and supporters.
Taking action, making a difference
Our outreach staff alerted our UCS activists and asked them to contact farm bill negotiators, and more than 4,500 of you responded. Members of Congress offered their help. Sen. Ed Markey (MA) circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter to farm bill conferees opposing the provision. Sen. Markey’s staff, along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s (CT) staff, were both tireless and professional in their efforts to oppose the provision. It was a great boon that Sen. Tom Harkin (IA) was a farm bill conferee and could exert his considerable influence to ensure that the bill did not harm science. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (MI), as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, heard our concerns.
I’m happy to say that the sound science provision never made it into the final bill. We were on pins and needles until we finally saw the text of the conference agreement.
We hope that in the future, in a better political and economic climate, we’ll be able to achieve more positive proactive victories. And keeping bad things from happening may not grab the headlines. But this is a victory we all should celebrate.