The eyes glaze over, and it sounds very boring to the average American. But the Farm Bill—a massive multibillion-dollar hodgepodge of provisions that relate to agriculture and that the Congress takes up every five years or so—is the bread-and-butter bill for anyone interested in food and nutrition policy, agricultural commodities, conservation, energy, trade, and increasingly even animal protection.
Last week, House and Senate negotiators on the Farm Bill agreed to the terms of the legislation, and the final bill (called a conference report) is slated for an up-or-down vote in the House and Senate this week. It’s controversial for a number of reasons, mainly its $300-billion price tag and the subsidies that wealthy farmers, including sugar growers, are slated to receive at a time when they are already reaping record profits. For that reason, President Bush is considering a veto. It appears though that the measure has broad, bipartisan support in Congress; there’s something in it for everyone (kind of like a Department of Defense authorizing and appropriations bill with a nugget for every district and major player), and if Bush vetoes it, both chambers may override.
Payments to farmers, conservation provisions, more promotions of fruits and vegetables, surplus sugar purchases for ethanol, and other items of the measure have garnered the most attention. But tucked into the bill are several enormously important animal protection provisions, and that’s why The HSUS is urging the House and Senate members to approve the legislation and urging the President to sign it.
The Farm Bill includes a provision, inserted in the original Senate bill by Majority Whip Richard Durbin, to curb the import of puppies for commercial sale from foreign puppy mills. A growing number of breeders in Eastern European countries, China, Mexico, and other foreign countries see the United States as a potential market and are shipping tens of thousands of dogs in, even though there is a strong domestic dog and cat breeding industry here and there are millions of pets available from shelters, rescue groups, and U.S. breeders. The provisions require that any dog imported into the United States for commercial sale be at least 6 months old, to ensure that young, unweaned, and unvaccinated puppies are not forced to suffer from harsh, long-distance transport. They also ensure that any dog entering the United States be deemed healthy prior to entry. Exceptions are provided so as not to interfere with shelter and rescue work, veterinary treatment, or research purposes.
This provision has potential to dramatically slow the inhumane trade in puppies into the United States. That will bring great relief to dogs right now, but it will also be a bulwark against the development of a massive puppy breeding industry in China and other countries that might see the United States as an even more lucrative market for puppy sales, notwithstanding serious animal welfare concerns.
© The HSUS
There’s also what I call the Michael Vick provision, and this measure has potentially enormous consequences for the future of dogfighting and cockfighting in this country. The Congress upgraded the federal animal fighting law last spring at The HSUS’s urging, making it a federal felony to move fighting animals in interstate or foreign commerce. Then the Vick case broke, and there was unprecedented national attention on the scourge of dogfighting. The Vick case prompted a raft of state legislation to upgrade animal fighting laws, and it also prompted the introduction of new bills by Sen. John Kerry and Reps. Betty Sutton, Elton Gallegly, and Earl Blumenauer to further upgrade the federal law against animal fighting. Sen. Kerry offered his bill as an amendment on the Senate Farm Bill, and it was accepted. In the conference committee on the Farm Bill, thanks primarily to the exceptional work of House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (with the assistance of his Senate counterpart, Patrick Leahy), the legislation was strengthened further to toughen the federal animal fighting law by making it a crime to knowingly possess or train animals for fighting, enhancing the penalty for animal fighting offenses from a potential three-year prison sentence to a maximum five-year prison sentence, and making any animal fighting affecting interstate or foreign commerce a federal crime.
In addition to cracking down on all staged animal fights that are organized in the United States, the federal legislation also bans the export of fighting animals to other nations. Yesterday, Jeremy Schwartz of Cox News Service wrote a story about how U.S. fighting birds, specifically birds from Georgia, are dominating in fights in Mexico. Under existing law, shipping fighting birds outside of a state—to another state or another country—is a felony-level offense. So the federal government can crack down on it now. But if the animal fighting provision in the Farm Bill is approved, it will strengthen the federal case against these lawbreakers even more.
True, if viewed in the broadest sense, the overall bill might logically be considered a disappointment for animal advocates (not just because conferees struck language approved by the House and Senate to put a stop to Class B dealers, and their nefarious work in collecting "random source" dogs and cats and selling them to research facilities, often for painful and terminal experimentation). The lawmakers who wrote the Farm Bill do not proactively address any core concerns that animal advocates have about animal agriculture, including intensive confinement systems, cruel mutilation procedures (such as tail docking), the rampant non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on factory farms, or greenhouse gas emissions from farm animal agriculture. Indeed, it was the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production—an independent group chaired by former Kansas Governor John Carlin and that included former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman—that took on these questions squarely in its historic report issued two weeks ago. It would be a failure of Congress not at some point to consider the Pew report and take up many of its recommendations.
But politics is the art of the possible, and the members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees who write the Farm Bill are tied too closely to the agriculture industry to readily take on these issues in a proactive way, and they come from districts with a heavy demographic tilt toward established agricultural interests. But some lawmakers do seem more willing than ever to address animal abuse problems that do not relate centrally to the agriculture industry, and we’re grateful for that.