Just a handful of House members are making major decisions affecting rural communities, businesses and people with the flick of an amendment.
Forget the title of the bill Congress passes. Check out the amendments — especially when it comes to bills that come out of the House.
Over the last several months, we’ve seen an increasing number of very important decisions in federal policy being made throrugh amendments to bills in the House of Representatives. Many of these affect rural businesses, people and communities in ways that spell the difference between life and death.
For instance, last year the House passed a bill that provided money for agriculture, rural development and the Food and Drug Administration. But it also affected how cattle were sold at auction.
A House member attached an amendment (in section 721 of the bill, for those who are keeping track) that prevented the U.S. Department of Agriculture from implementing new rules governing livestock sales and contracts. The bill wasn’t about livestock contracts, but the amendment said no money could be spent to strengthen the position of farmers and ranchers under the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921.
Let’s remember why the USDA thought the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 needed to be strengthened. For one, 80 percent of the cattle market is controlled by just four packers. In 1980, ranchers got 63 cents out of every dollar consumers spent on beef. By 2009, ranchers got 43 cents.
Not coincidentally, the nation lost 1,000 ranchers a month over those same 30 years. And in the same time, 600,000 hog producers have also gone out of business.
But in an amendment to a budget bill, the House said the USDA couldn’t deal with this situation.
Just last week, we read a similar story about an amendment contained in a bill that funded the U.S. Department of Labor.
The bill was 165 pages long and deep in the paper was language that barred the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration from implementing or enforcing new rules aimed at reducing the exposure of miners to the coal dust that causes black lung disease. Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. reported that the bill included the language about the black lung rules among several provisions “to reduce government overreach, rein in excessive regulation, and help foster a good economic environment for job growth.”
Congress made the eradication of black lung a national goal in 1969. Since then, 75,000 miners have died from the disease.
But the House said no new rules could be passed until after the U.S. Government Accountability Office completed a lengthy study. That study is due to be completed this coming August.
The Department of Labor funding bill was amended and passed at about the same time the House barred rules that governed livestock sales.
Now the House Agriculture Committee has passed a new Farm Bill; they are at it again. Here are some of the things the House is attempting to control through amendments to the Farm Bill:
• The bill does away with the remaining rules adopted by the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA). The House barred most of those regulations last year, but allowed some that would give a little more power to poultry growers; amendments to this Farm Bill would do away with these rules, too.
The GIPSA rules were only in effect for a few months. They gave poultry growers a few more rights. For instance, poultry companies could not force growers to make new investment without some assurance that those investments would be paid for in growing contracts.
The amendment essentially ends rules that took two years to write and received 60,000 comments from farmers and ranchers.
“Each of the hundreds of farmers who spoke up for these regulations during the rule-making process did so at risk of retaliation and the loss of their family’s livelihoods,” said Becky Ceartas with RAFI, a poultry-growers advocacy group. “Some of them are now struggling to keep their family farm. If the rule is gutted, contract poultry farmers will not have the tools they need to protect their livelihoods when they face unfair treatment and retaliation.”
• The House intends to stop state ballot initiatives affecting agriculture by invoking the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution.
An amendment from Rep. Steve King (the Iowa Republican) would prohibit the means of production for a particular farm product to be subject to state ballot initiatives, reports Chris Clayton. For instance, recent ballot initiatives have been aimed at barring eggs or pork produced by factory farms using certain growing techniques. These effots would be prohibited under the amendment the House committee adopted.
“Don’t be telling the states producing a product already approved by the FDA or USDA how to be producing that product,” King said.
• Another amendment would weaken a rule requiring beef to be labeled with its country of orgin.
An amendment from Rep. David Scott (a Georgia Democrat) and Rep. Randy Neugebauer (a Texas Republican) directs the Secretary of Agriculture to report in 90 days how he intends to comply with a World Trade Organization ruling finding that the U.S. country of origin labeling (COOL) rules discriminates against animals from Mexico and Canada.
Pro-COOL advocates see the amendment as a dismantling of the U.S. regulations. The National Farmers Union said it was “deeply disappointed that the committee approved the amendment. This is an underhanded way to dismantle COOL behind closed doors and out of public view. Many in the leadership of the livestock industry seem intent on looking backward and ignoring consumer preferences. Consumers have a right to know from where their food comes, and Congress must not interfere with that right.”
• Amendments would limit the ability of federal agencies to oversee genetically engineered crops.
The Center for Food Safety lists a number of ways GE crops are protected by amendments in the House committee’s version of the farm bill. For instance, amendments would create deadlines for the USDA to approve new GE seeds that the advocacy group says are “unreasonably short.” This timing would “force the backdoor approval of GE crops, even if USDA has not reviewed and approved them,” The Center for Food Safety contends.
There are more of these kinds of amendments, according to groups that are dissecting the bill. For example, the Environmental Working Group contends that “Reps. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) tacked on riders that would damage water quality and wildlife habitats.”
Now these amendments are embedded in the Farm Bill that the full House will debate sometime this year. (The old Farm Bill expires at the end of September.) And they will be darn hard to get out of the full bill.
This is what it comes down to: a few dozen members of House committees are able to direct national policies affecting rural communities. Just a handful of House members out of 435 elected members have stopped rules protecting miners from black lung and ranchers from monopoly markets. Just a few dozen House members are telling the USDA to accept genetically engineered crops quickly. Just 30-odd members of the House Agriculture Committee are re-writing rules governing food labeling and the contracts made between poultry growers and the few companies that control the chicken business.
All it takes is an interested Representative and the entire direction of federal policy can be changed in the blink of an amendment.
Bill Bishop is co-editor of the Daily Yonder.