Lauding Leadership, Scolding Obstruction in the Senate

By on September 29, 2010 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

There is good news and bad news from Capitol Hill.

Brown rabbit

On the up side, the U.S. Senate last night gave unanimous approval to legislation to crack down on animal crush videos—the vile depictions of staged scenes in which scantily clad women maim and torture animals for the sexual gratification of viewers. I’ve written about it several times before, and the first reaction of any decent person is shock that anyone could possibly be so cruel to participate in making or watching this perversion. All good people are rightly outraged and disgusted by the idea of someone torturing and killing animals just for the sexual titillation of others. The bill, pushed by Sens. Jon Kyl, R. Ariz., Jeff Merkley, D. Ore., and Richard Burr, R. N.C., must now go back to the House, and we hope that chamber approves it in rapid fashion.

The other good news is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D. Nev., not only allowed the crush video legislation to come up for a vote, but he also personally offered motions to pass five other bills that had already been approved by the House: S. 1748—Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Research Act, S. 850—Shark Conservation Act, S. 859—Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Amendments, S. 529—Great Cats and Rare Canids Act, and H.R. 388—Crane Conservation Act.

The bad news is that Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., blocked all of the bills, denying final congressional action on a series of humane measures that deserve approval. Coburn did so under the pretense of fiscal restraint. But these measures cost very little, and they were all advanced to protect wild creatures from cruelty and in some cases from extinction. It’s worth the very modest investment to prevent such awful outcomes.

One can understand Sen. Coburn’s interest in fiscal restraint. But in his case, it is an obsession, and it borders on a mania. Lawmakers serve the public to balance a variety of interests, and not to see any topic in isolation or to magnify it and distort it. Cautious spending is an important value, but so is the defense of animals from cruelty, the rescue of marine creatures injured by human actions, or the protection of wild species from extinction. Coburn has corrupted a laudable principle of fiscal conservatism, and used it to negate and nullify valuable initiatives designed to protect vulnerable species at serious risk. In that sense, his is a fanatical devotion to a principle, and a misuse of power.

There’s another principle at work, and that’s the subversion of democratic decision-making. The Senate is a body of 100 individuals, elected by the people of all 50 states. Though it generally operates by the principle of majority rule, the Senate has a tradition of allowing individual lawmakers to place “holds” on legislation, allowing a single lawmaker to block consideration even of an enormously popular and bipartisan measure. Sen. Coburn uses the “hold” like most of the rest of us drink water, going to the well time and again. He is abusing this Senate privilege, and in the process he is subverting democratic lawmaking. When 99 senators favor reform and one does not, it is wrong for the one to prevail because of the upside-down procedures of the Senate.

While Sen. Coburn’s action allows real harm of living creatures to continue, there are many other lawmakers of both parties who do care and want to see the responsible treatment of all of God’s creatures. Sens. John Kerry, Maria Cantwell, Jeff Merkley, David Vitter, Richard Burr, Barbara Boxer, and others backed the measures Sen. Reid advanced. They didn’t appreciate Sen. Coburn’s obstructionism, but were powerless to stop the naysaying of one man obsessively focused on one narrow belief.

Today, I am especially grateful to Sen. Reid for his leadership, and we hope he’ll work to get these measures enacted in the lame-duck session to follow the election. I am pasting below the speech he gave on the Senate floor last night.

Mr. REID. Mr. President, one piece of unfinished business we have here in the Senate is to move a series of good, commonsense bills that would benefit wildlife and domestic animals.

These wildlife conservation and animal welfare bills have already passed the House of Representatives, and for a good reason. They also have bipartisan support. Most importantly, all of these measures are supported by the American people. These aren’t Democratic or Republican issues; they are issues of good moral conscience.

I have worked over the years on many bills connected to animals and wildlife. Not long ago, Senator Cantwell and I worked with a number of our Republican colleagues to pass a felony level penalty bill for dog fighting and cock fighting. This was a bipartisan rejection of animal cruelty. Today, we have the opportunity to help a great number of species. One bill ready for action, the Shark Conservation Act, will improve Federal enforcement of an existing prohibition on the killing of sharks just for their fins. Because of a loophole in the existing law, animals are still caught, their fins are severed, and the dismembered shark is sent back into the ocean to die. But they don’t just die, they suffer a horrible and protracted death—all of that cruelty for a bowl of soup.

Another important bill is the Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Act, which will strengthen programs that provide emergency aid to seals, whales, and other marine creatures that get struck by boats or tangled in fishing lines. This happens all the time.

Other bills, such as the Crane Conservation Act, the Great Cats and Rare Canids Act, and the Southern Sea Otter Recovery Act, will protect some of the most rare and remarkable creatures anyplace on Earth. Without our help, many of these creatures could disappear within a generation.

I also wish to draw attention to the efforts of Senators Merkley and Kyl today to clear an important bill that will end the appalling practice of animal crush videos. It is hard for me to comprehend what some people do. They torture animals and take pictures of them and sometimes sell those pictures. There are people sick enough to want to watch a little animal or a big animal be crushed and killed. They call them animal crush videos. The law we passed in 1999 outlawing these videos was struck down by the Supreme Court in April of this year. Senators Kyl and Merkley have worked to write a more narrowly tailored bill that respects the first amendment while still punishing those who seek to profit from the torture of puppies, kittens, and other helpless animals.

As I understand it, the Supreme Court said you can’t stop people from buying these videos to watch. But we can stop people from doing these terrible things that people want to watch.

I hope we can work these out and pass these by unanimous consent. Why do we need debate on these issues? These are good bipartisan bills that deserve to be passed.

Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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