Little did he know it, but Michael Vick got a great assist—the equivalent of some tremendous pass protection on the field—in his dogfighting debacle from U.S. Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), who has emerged in recent years as one of the leading opponents of animal welfare in Congress. Thanks to Sensenbrenner, the penalties in the federal law against animal fighting—the core federal law that prosecutors put to use in the indictment—were kept as misdemeanors during the period when crimes Vick is charged with took place. If Vick is convicted and a modest sentence is meted out, he can probably thank Sensenbrenner.
Fortunately, federal prosecutors have delivered some felony charges against Vick and his co-defendants by invoking the federal Travel Act and conspiracy in their first charge. But the second and third charges in the indictment are misdemeanor charges relating to the federal animal fighting law. Ironically, the Congress upgraded this law earlier this year, and President Bush signed the measure in May—just after the crimes set forth in the indictment of Vick and his co-defendants took place—and after Sensenbrenner was no longer in a position to block the legislation.
© The HSUS
A pit bull seized during a dogfighting bust in Michigan.
The idea of upgrading penalties to a felony for violations of the federal animal fighting law had active support in Congress for the past six years. In fact, both the House and Senate passed felony penalties for violations of the animal fighting law in 2001 and 2002, but the provision was inexplicably stripped out of the Farm Bill at the insistence of Republican House negotiators in a conference committee.
While there were just a handful of opponents of the legislation in Congress, the most influential detractor was Sensenbrenner, who from 2001 to 2006 had been chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, which writes the penalties for most federal crimes. It was Sensenbrenner who turned out to be the most well-placed friend on Capitol Hill of dogfighting and cockfighting interests.
In the 109th Congress—spanning 2005 and 2006—the Senate unanimously passed the felony legislation, introduced by Senator John Ensign (R-Nev.) right out of the gate, in April 2005. The House bill, led by Reps. Mark Green (R- Wisc.), Elton Gallegly (R- Calif.) and Earl Blumenauer (D- Ore.), also had a huge head of steam and was picking up scores of cosponsors. In the end, it had a remarkable 324 cosponsors—more cosponsors than just about any other bill in Congress with about three-quarters of the entire House.
But the bill had to clear the Judiciary Committee, and Sensenbrenner by this time was doing the bidding of the animal fighting industry, and saying it was a state issue, not a federal issue and that other issues were more important. Sensenbrenner had almost no support on his committee for his position—only from Rep. Steve King (R- Iowa ), who has taken the nonsensical position of opposing every animal welfare bill until abortion is outlawed in the nation. (Even if abortion is outlawed, I am sure King will cook up another reason to oppose animal welfare legislation. See more on his antics here and here.)
During the last Congress, dozens of lawmakers from his own party pleaded with Sensenbrenner to pass the legislation, but he would not budge. In the end, the clock ran out, and the law was not upgraded. If it had been, federal prosecutors could have asked for more severe penalties in their case against Vick.
After the November 2006 elections, which ushered Democrats into power, Sensenbrenner lost his chairmanship. The new chairman, Rep. John Conyers (D- Mich.), is a fantastic ally of animal protection, and he moved the legislation in rapid fashion. Gallegly, Blumenauer and Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) introduced the bill on the first day of the new Congress. It quickly amassed more than 300 cosponsors and passed the full House on March 26. Sensenbrenner tried to kill the bill in committee, and then voted against it on the floor, with 36 other Republicans and two Democrats. The Senate then passed the bill unanimously, as advocated by lead Senate sponsors Maria Cantwell (D- Wash.) and Ensign, less than a month later, and President Bush signed it into law on May 3.
While Michael Vick is in a heap of trouble, and his freedom and career are threatened, he just escaped being charged under the new federal law against animal fighting and its strengthened felony penalties. He can thank Jim Sensenbrenner for that small dose of good fortune.