View from the Levee: Big Ag’s Congress

With blinding speed and no discussion, Congress throws out legislation that would have helped poultry farmers and tells USDA to ignore a court ruling on genetically modified crops. It's all in a day’s work for Big Meat and Big Seed.

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It’s the kind of gutless, faceless action that Congress is infamous for and, on March 20, Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, finally said “enough.”

Before he could object, however, transnational meatpackers and global seed giants had their legislative victories, literally, in the bag.

Here’s how it happened.

During the week of March 18, the U.S. Senate planned to vote on this year’s “continuing resolution,” or CR, an already House-passed bill to fund discretionary government spending through Sept. 30.

Before the CR hit the Senate floor, however, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, made it plain he wanted to move the bill quickly for two reasons.

First, without fast Congressional action and an even faster presidential pen, the government would run out of cash March 27 and shut down March 28. As they say in Washington, a shut-down is “bad optics” but it’s really bad optics when the picture shows a sad-faced Easter Bunny in the foreground.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Congress was set to blow out of town March 22 for a two-week in-district (ahem) work period.

So, to encourage talkative senators to hold their flapping gums, Reid urged a limit on amendments to the CR so the Senate could vote and move it back to the House by mid-week then—vamoose—leave town for two weeks of baby-kissing back home.

Many senators objected—it was a must-pass, nearly-$1 trillion spending bill, after all—and, overnight, dozens of amendments were filed for debate and, the senators hoped, individual votes.

Two were filed by the Senate’s only farmer, Jon Tester of Montana. He had seen additions — or “policy riders” — in the House CR that troubled him and wanted the Senate to at least acknowledge their presence and, perhaps, vote to remove ‘em.

The first Tester amendment asked to drop a rider that rescinded recently enacted Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration rules. The rules, almost four years in the making, gave poultry farmers more power to negotiate production contracts with the handful of packer-integrators that dominate American poultry.

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Jon Tester, shown here on his Montana farm, offered two amendments to the spending bill. Neither made it to the floor for a vote. “The ultimate loser … will be our family farmers going about their business and feeding America the right way,” Tester said of the legislation.

The GIPSA rider, to Tester’s surprise, now killed the rules and he wondered why this big favor to Big Meat was being hustled through Congress with nary a question, comment or cost-benefit analysis by, surprisingly, his Majority Leader.

Tester’s other amendment was even more basic: The CR contained language that permitted genetically modified crops, GMOs, to continue to be used “even when a court of law has found they were approved illegally,” explained Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C. food policy watchdog.

The change goes back to August 2010 when a federal judge blocked the use of Monsanto’s GMO sugar beets after finding the U.S. Department of Agriculture “had not adequately assessed the environmental consequences before approving them for commercial cultivation,” according to a New York Times story then.

This CR rider, however, according to Tester in a speech on the Senate floor that questioned its origin and legality, now has “the United States Congress telling the Agriculture Department… you MUST [speaker’s emphasis] disregard the court’s ruling and allow the crops to be planted anyway.”

“Not only does this ignore the Constitution’s idea of separation of powers,” Tester pointed out, “but it also lets genetically-modified crops take hold across the country, even when a judge finds it violates the law.”

The “ultimate loser,” he said, “will be our family farmers going about their business and feeding America the right way.”

And all this undercover legislating, he noted sadly, was going on during “Sunshine Week” on Capitol Hill, a period devoted to transparency in government.

Neither amendment saw light leading up to the vote; Reid limited debate to just a handful and none were Tester’s.

As such, both ag riders were approved without comment as part of an overall 76-23 Senate approval that moved the CR back to the House for final passage. (Tester was the only Senate Democrat to vote against it and his leader.)

The House did just that March 21and sent the CR to the White House for President Obama’s signature and, soon, enactment.

As such, Big Meat and Big Seed got new, almost extra-legal powers without so much as a Congressional hearing, debate or whimper. That’s impressive. That’s power.

And that’s wrong.

Alan Guebert is an agriculture journalist who lives in central Illinois.

 

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