December 12, 2018

The King (Amendment) is Dead. Long Live Animal Welfare Reforms.

Key leaders in the House and Senate have agreed on a series of compromises to the Farm bill and released a “conference report” today. That action is an antecedent to final up-or-down votes, expected within days, on that measure in the House and Senate. If both chambers pass the Farm bill conference report, it goes to President Trump, who can sign it into law before the end of the year.

Animal Wellness Action is extraordinarily excited about the inclusion of several broadly-supported animal protection bills in the package, including the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act, the Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act, and the Parity in Animal Cruelty Enforcement (PACE), which makes dogfighting and cockfighting a federal crime in the five U.S. territories if there is any interstate nexus to the activities. These important pieces of legislation were adopted as amendments to the Farm Bill, and their possible passage marks the biggest gains for animal protection advocates in the 115th Congress.

What’s more, an overreaching and dangerous attack on states’ rights, in the form of an amendment from Steve King, R-Iowa, is expected to be jettisoned from the final omnibus agriculture policy bill.  Animal Wellness Action and many other animal advocates and concerned organizations and citizens fought hard against the King amendment, which was included in the House Farm bill narrowly passed during the summer. In August, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., released a letter this month, signed by 31 Senate colleagues, urging the Senate Agriculture Committee’s top Republican and Democrat to stand firm against the House amendment from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that “would undermine numerous state laws and infringe on the fundamental rights of states to establish regulations within their own borders.”

The Senators, including Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Robert Casey, D-Pa., Tina Smith, D-Minn., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., from the Agriculture Committee, noted that the King amendment is “drafted in an expansive manner” and could nullify state laws dealing with “invasive pests, infectious disease regulations, health and safety standards, consumer information safeguards, food quality and safety regulations, animal welfare standards, narcotics laws, and fishing regulations.”

There is a careful balance between federal and state authority at play in agriculture policy, but the King amendment seeks to upend that balance and usurp state authority in a dramatic way and not put in any new protective standards at the federal level. Long an opponent of any animal welfare reforms, King has worked to nullify state farm animal welfare laws while also opposing federal animal protection efforts at every turn. The King amendment, had it been adopted, would have put the federal government in charge of almost all legal standards over agriculture, making the states bystanders on key regulatory issues for commodities moved in interstate commerce. It amounted to an attempted federal hijacking of agricultural policy-making, subverting states’ rights when it comes to one of the biggest sectors of the U.S. economy.

In addition to the rejection of his amendment, King and his allies got another bale of bad news last week: the Trump Administration’s top lawyer, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, filed a pleading with the U.S. Supreme Court and urged the justices not to take up a challenge to California’s farm animal protection laws brought forward by several state attorneys general that sought to strike down California’s landmark animal protection laws and to promote King’s ideas through the federal courts.

A dozen state attorneys general, led by Senator-elect Jason Hawley of Missouri, filed an action in December 2017 in the form of a motion to the Supreme Court claiming that California’s farm animal welfare laws related to the treatment of laying hens are preempted by existing federal law and also violate the Commerce Clause.

“[C]ontrary to the plaintiffs’ assertion, California’s AB 1437 and Shell Egg Food Safety regulations are not preempted by the EPIA [Egg Products Inspections Act], because the USDA’s egg-grading standards do not address confinements conditions for egg-laying hens,” wrote the Solicitor General and his team, after they were invited by the Court to share their views on the case.

The plaintiffs filed several actions prior to this one and the federal courts denied them legal standing to bring the case.  Hence, the state attorneys general brought this case and asked the Court to invoke “original jurisdiction.”  The Solicitor General was emphatic in urging that the justices not take up the case because the elements of the case don’t warrant the Court asserting its authority in this way.

But Francisco and his team went well beyond arguments related to the unusual step of the Court invoking original jurisdiction.  “Plaintiffs’ allegations regarding economic harm to the state residents and institutions are insufficient because they do not persuasively show price increases outside California that are directly attributable to California’s Egg Laws,” wrote the government lawyers. They added that, “States are permitted to ‘make laws governing matters of local concern which nevertheless in some measure affect interstate commerce or even, to some extent, regulate it.’”

King barely hung on in his re-election campaign, despite running in one of the nation’s most Republican districts. House Republican leaders took the unusual step of denouncing him during the final days of the campaign for his incendiary remarks on other topics, and even before that, they had denied King, a senior member of the Agriculture Committee, a position on the conference committee because of his extreme views.

In short, there have now been a series of major outcomes that offer the possibility of a more secure circumstance for the advancement of farm animal protection policies in the U.S.  The King amendment has been dropped, the Trump Administration has rejected the arguments of King and several state attorneys general aligned philosophically with him, and California voters just last month approved an even more powerful animal welfare law to protect farm animals.

The states have had been the staging ground for 5 statewide ballot measures to protect farm animals.  Voters have approved every one of them by wide margins, with the last four measures each commanding more than 60 percent. That message should not be lost on any politician in America, and by rejecting the King amendment, key U.S. House and Senate lawmakers seem to understand the era of denying farm animals any protections whatsoever is over.

All animals deserve humane treatment, including animals used in agriculture

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