November 29, 2010
Federal Farming Power Grab Scheduled for Senate Vote TodayBy Michael Geer
S.510, the Senate bill set to vastly expand federal power over agriculture, potentially choking off small local growers and hobby farmers, is set for a vote today.
Cloture, or a vote to end debate, on S.150 took place on Wednesday, November 17, with 74 votes for and 25 opposed. A final Manager's Amendment came into being after more than thirty hours of debate following cloture.
A Manager's Amendment is, quoting the C-SPAN Congressional Glossary, a package of numerous individual amendments agreed to by both sides in advance. The managers are the majority and the minority member who manage the debate on a bill for their side.
On Thursday, November 18, Tom Coburn (R-OK) held up the bill through design by asking for an amendment meant to address the subject of earmarks. A motion to proceed was voted on and passed.
Quoting Lee Bechtel, National Health Federation:
[D]uring the debate, Senator Harkin described some of the key points in the yet-to-be-voted-on Manager's Amendment. Among other changes, the final Manager's Amendment included an exemption for dietary supplements from Codex  food guidelines, exemption language for dietary supplement manufacturers and retailers from the conventional food company and distributor registration fees, reporting and product traceability requirements. The final Manager's Amendment also included the Tester-Hagan  amendment exempting small farmers and retailers; organic farmers were already exempted from FDA registration fee, reporting, and product traceability requirements, for farms with less than $500,000 in gross receipts. The compromise language was very close to the original Tester amendment, which is why Senators Tester and Hagan both voted in favor of moving the bill forward.
Friday, November 19, Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that agreement had been reached on the order of final amendments and votes on S.510, which are now scheduled for Monday, November 29, after the Thanksgiving recess. There will be a second cloture vote on the motion to proceed, followed by debate and votes on two amendments to be offered by Senator Coburn. These are to be followed by debate and a vote on the Manager's Amendment to the original S.510 bill. If successful, the vote on final bill passage follows.
As explained by Senator Harkin, he and Senators Reid and Durbin had worked out an agreement in advance of Senate passage with House Democratic leadership to accept the Senate-passed bill, hold it at the House desk, and then vote on passage of the Senate bill. This procedural maneuvering eliminates the usual joint Senate-House conference committee to work out differences with the Waxman- and House-passed Food Safety Bill, H.R.2749. If the House approves, the final version of the Senate Food Safety Bill would then be sent to President Obama for signing into new law.
Here's the nut of it: S.510 as originally envisioned by Dick Durbin (D-IL) has been moderated but not eliminated in the sense of preventing more big government. While no one in his right mind would argue against food safety, valid arguments can and have been raised against more government layered on top of the big government we already have. Amendments have been offered and appear to be in the final bill which seem to address the concerns of small businesses, small farmers, small ranchers, small food producers, farmers' markets, hobbyists, home gardeners, seed enthusiasts, and others.
The bill, as it stands now, is going to be available to be voted on after reconciliation with the House version (H.R.2749) with this proviso: no monies will be appropriated for this expanded authority in addition to the FDA's current $4-billion-plus budget. The suggestion that new fees imposed by these changes by the FDA will not begin to cover expansive new bureaucracies that would be enacted into law is correct. To carry out all of the new rules and FDA authorities, new spending will have to be approved, or current spending levels for other FDA programs or regulatory activities will have to be reduced. The beast can be starved in the future even if not defeated outright the first time around.
Now, a multi-part discussion is necessary to even scratch the surface of our national food supply and the safeguarding of that food supply, including defining terms from the Bill, such as National Agriculture and Food Defense Strategy. Imported foods, overseas processed food plants, all sorts of possible breakdowns in food safety have to be discussed.
Let's look at arguments for S.510 and its cccopanion HR 2749. The two sides of debate concerning these proposed sweeping laws can be roughly divided up into traditional and big business practices on one side and natural and small operations on the other.
From the Florida Organic Growers website, we learn they've urged passage of S.510 if -- I repeat, if -- the Tester-Hagan Amendment is included in the final bill. Quoting from their Statement:
That's a provisional "Yes" from a substantial natural-market interest group.
From Growing Produce, there's a valuable discussion titled "Two Sides To Food Safety": "Despite the recent foodborne illness outbreak, legislators need to make sure food safety regulations take both large and small growers into consideration." This is not in favor of S.510, but it explains that there are two sides to the debate. The depth of market difficulties that have to be navigated by the men and women who just bring you leafy greens is hardly known to the average consumer, and it would be good if you read up on the Home - National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement to start. Farming and ranching are tough businesses.
The industry trade group Food Marketing Institute urges swift passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FMI NEWS RELEASE). Marion Nestle of Food Politics urges passage of the bill, reasoning that whether you're large or small, if you produce food for sale, you need to be accountable to food safety laws and accountable to your buyers. No argument there. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, argues that the bill should be passed though it is not perfect because we don't live in a perfect world (I don't think that puts words in his mouth). Read his interview with Ezra Klein of the Washington Post here.
GRIST presents a worthy and well-rounded list of pros and cons in its Food Fight debate.
And from Bill Marler, an attorney specializing in food safety and food-borne illnesses at the MarlerBlog, we read:
Obama Foodorama (yes, there actually is a website dedicated to Obama food initiatives) has an interesting take on the bill, referring to Senators Tester and Coburn as throwing monkey wrenches into this legislation. Read it for yourself.
Here's the curious thing: I've spent weeks scouring the internet for published reasons to support S.510. I suggest you do the same for five minutes. You won't find much. And you'd think for such a massive bill, there'd be arguments supporting it, but internet search engines won't be any help. There's almost no voice out there in support. That makes my nose itch.
One of the sources supporting the S.510 is the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (their article: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition » Archive » Senate Food Safety Bill Includes Improvements That Support Farmers).
What was all the shouting about in my first article from Wednesday, November 17? There were quotes from respected sources alleging that with passage of S.510, we would lose our ability to grow our own gardens or save and trade seeds, that the bill would make farmers' markets into FDA police riots and create food police with their noses in everything. What was that all about? Because, demonstrably, there's not a single thing in the bill that says anything like that. Let us turn to an advocate of big government:
Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. authored a comprehensive description of what's wrong with S.510. I see no reason to add to his exposition and have his permission to use it in full, with my highest possible recommendation. He published it on Tuesday, November 23 in USA Today.
Taking off from Lyndon Johnson's observation, quoted above, the ambiguity of language in S.510 provides a giant opportunity for empowered authorities to make up both the intent and meaning of these proposed regulations and interpret this law as they see fit when they should be constrained by specifics. Legislators can be amazingly specific when they want to be. But a law that is couched in terms and phrases open to interpretation is exactly what leads to cascading unintended consequences. And many believe that's exactly why ambiguous language is used. Along the lines of "better to ask forgiveness than permission." Or, more bluntly, we'll do as we please, see you in court, and we'll let a judge sort it out.
This is exactly why so much distress and anger permeates the internet over S.510: the possibility of slowly eroding the natural rights of home gardeners and their valued seed stocks in the face of the sweeping changes genetically patented seed lines represent. Attorneys for multinational corporations making these GMO seeds are ruthless in pursuing lawsuits to enforce what they claim is patent infringement -- even when it is nature spreading these seeds into fields and farms, and not by consent or intent of farmers who find GMO patented seeds suddenly among their crops. The what if scenarios of ambiguous language coupled to a corporatist-Statist administration are frightening, and the people raising an alarm about home gardens and seed stocks are probably not Chicken Littles. Not if recent history is any indication.
It's sophomorically easy and disingenuous to arm-chair quarterback. The safety of our food supply and the responsibility for overseeing what that requires is a gargantuan undertaking. Hats off to every one in the chain of command who is doing the job right, efficiently, and without bureaucratic malice. But arming that chain of command with vastly enlarged responsibilities riddled with powers of enforcement ambiguous at best is to ensure a law that harms rather than protects. Man is a fickle animal capable of glory and honor, but he is just as capable of chicanery and greed. Ambiguity invites disaster.
Lastly, S.510 is an inverted pyramid of power. Growing federal mandates on top of an already top-heavy bureaucratic leviathan is neither efficient nor safe. Going to the well again, let's say it over and over: complexity is the enemy of security.
As sweeping a bill as has ever been introduced regarding food safety, S.510 reaches too far and too wide and embraces too much with a one-size-fits-all worldview. Instead of the hard work of focusing on specific issues and making those work within the structure of laws and regulations and departments already empowered, the authors of S.510 chose to use the biggest brush on the biggest canvas.
...Resulting in an embodiment of the truism complexity is the enemy of security.
Dump S.510, go back to the drawing board, leverage the brilliance of the free market, and reinstitute simplicity for the sake of security.
Michael Geer invites comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Codex Alimentarius Codex Alimentarius - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia -- make sure you read the Controversy section; then do further research on why the United States Congress considers any legislation which advances United Nations' goals regarding our self-determined and independent preferences of foods, supplements, vitamins, and other nutritional choices.
 Senator John Tester (D-MT) is a Certified organic farmer. T-Bones farm is 1,400 acres and a diverse organic operation.