It’s been a long time coming. Last week, President Bush signed the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act (H.R. 137), putting to a close a six-year battle in Congress to establish felony-level penalties for interstate and foreign commerce in dog fighting, cockfighting and other forms of staged animal fighting. Since President Bush has vetoed only two bills during his six-plus years in office, his support was no surprise, though the news was still very welcome and appreciated.
With commanding margins in the Senate and House, it was obvious that the legislation drew remarkable support from Democrats and Republicans. That’s how it should be for animal issues—opposition to animal cruelty is a universal value, and elected officials of every political stripe should support efforts to stop it.
The House co-authors were Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.)—three of the best friends animals have in Congress. The Senate bill was led by Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), John Ensign (R-Nev.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)—again, all major allies of animal protection.
© The HSUS
In the Senate, the bill also got a major assist from Senator David Vitter (R-La.), who worked hard to convince a few skeptical Republican colleagues that it was a worthy and important bill. Vitter hails from the only state with legal cockfighting, and cockfighting was a central issue in his successful campaign for the Senate against cockfighting enthusiast Chris John in 2004.
The question is, with such bipartisan support, why did the bill not pass in the last Congress, or even in the one prior to that? The reason is simple: a handful of Republican House leaders stood in the way of final passage, and when the Democrats took charge, these people were out of the way and out of power.
For the past four years, it was Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who turned out to be the animal fighters’ best friend. Through the years, Sensenbrenner—a brusque and stubborn career lawmaker from north of Milwaukee—wasn’t half bad on animal issues. But when The HSUS began to pressure him to get this bill moving, he got it in his head that he had to be top dog. He resisted every effort to pass the legislation—even turning down the entreaties of dozens of House Republican colleagues who wanted the bill passed.
Among those who pleaded with Sensenbrenner to get the job done was former Rep. Mark Green, a Republican colleague from Wisconsin who had been running for Governor and wanted to showcase his support for animal issues by passing this important legislation. In the 109th Congress (we are now in the 110th), Green’s animal fighting bill had 324 cosponsors—three-fourths of the entire House—but Sensenbrenner stood in the way at every turn, dissing Green and giving something of a free ride to the criminals who stage animal fights. And unfortunately, then Majority Leader John Boehner would not stand up to him and bring the issue to the floor.
Through the years the cockfighting lobby (mainly in the form of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association) spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to bottle up this legislation, and we’ll never know how closely they worked with Sensenbrenner and others to prevent its adoption.
When the Democrats took over this year they fast-tracked the bill. Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) held a hearing on the bill and voted it out of the committee in short order, with the active support of ranking Republican members Lamar Smith and Randy Forbes. The new leaders of the committee were super to work with.
Then, after a little hitch with House leaders because of efforts to bollix up the legislation by animal-hating leaders at the National Rifle Association—mainly because they fear The HSUS’s emerging political power—the Democrats brought the bill to the floor and it passed in a landslide. There were 37 Republicans and two Democrats across the 39 "no" voters.
Among the Republican "no" votes was half of the House Republican leadership team, including the top leaders—Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). The members of the Republican leadership to favor the bill were Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), Kay Granger (R-Tex.), John Carter (R-Tex.) and Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.).
For the life of me, I cannot figure out why House Republican leaders opposed the legislation. In contrast, all of the Senate’s Republican leaders favored the bill, and Ensign, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, had been leading the fight on the issue for years. And, putting the policy issues aside, I cannot fathom why House Republican leaders squandered this opportunity to pass an enormously popular anti-crime, anti-cruelty, anti-gambling and anti-bird flu measure.
In any case, it’s thrilling that the bill is now law, and special thanks go to the tenacious Gallegly and Blumenauer and to Conyers and other Democratic leaders for acting so quickly on it.
The bill provides for up to three years in jail and a $250,000 fine per violation. It’s now illegal to transport any animal in interstate or foreign commerce for fighting purposes, and it’s illegal to transport cockfighting implements. The legislation also bans commercial speech that promotes illegal animal fighting activities; we now hope to shut down the cockfighting magazines that sell fighting birds, gaffs and knives, and generally provide the glue for this organized criminal industry.
I assure you—especially after all of the labors that went it to passing this legislation—we will work to see that it’s enforced. We will work harder than ever to rid the nation of this wicked and barbaric form of animal cruelty.