Democracy Denied

Update 2: From the Clerk of the House of Representatives, the bill passes. On to the Senate, where I hope it can be fixed:

6:02 P.M. -
Considered as unfinished business.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS - The Chair announced that the unfinished business was the question of adoption of motions to suspend the rules which had been debated earlier and on which further proceedings had been postponed.

H.R. 2749:
to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to improve the safety of food in the global market, and for other purposes

Motion to reconsider laid on the table Agreed to without objection.

On passage Passed by recorded vote: 283 - 142 (Roll no. 680).

Update: As we read legislative language last night, our analysis has evolved and we've modified one of the bullet points below to reflect this.

This afternoon, leadership in the House of Representatives attempted to ram a food safety bill through under suspended rules that prevented amendments to the bill. The trade-off for suspending the rules is that a bill has to achieve a two-thirds super majority. Suspension of rules is typically used only for non-controversial bills, but the House leadership used it in this case in an attempt to force the bill through before the August break without lengthy debate on amendments (democracy is so time consuming, you know).

It didn't work. The House fell 6 votes short of the two-thirds super-majority needed to pass the bill under suspended rules. We assumed they would drop the issue until after the August break when they had more time to consider amendments to the bill.

Nope. Now House leadership has a new plan to try again to pass the bill, again with no amendments allowed, but this time requiring only a simple majority.

For those of you who were reading the Blog for Rural America during the Farm Bill, you may remember several rants about the Rules Committee in the House of Representatives. (If you've forgotten or need a refresher, click here, here, here or here.) The point of the Rules Committee is to decide for each bill that goes to the House floor which amendments will be debated and how long they will be debated for.

However, as we saw in the Farm Bill, the Rules Committee is frequently used by the leadership in the House to ram legislation through quickly without pesky amendments that hold up the process.

Except "pesky" amendments can frequently make a bad bill better.

Now the same thing is happening with the Food Safety Enhancement Act - H.R. 2749. We at the Center aren't working actively on the bill, but we're weighing in because we get really irritated when either the House or the Senate use rule tricks to deny a vote on anything.

In addition, the bill has problems that could negatively affect small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers, as well as people who farm sustainably or organically.

Thanks to information from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, here are a few of the the ways the bill should be and could be amended if only the House leadership would allow for actual democracy.

  • Establish a sliding scale for facility registration based on their on-farm processing activities so that small and mid-sized family farmers are not forced to unfairly pay the same fee as multinational companies;
  • Food safety legislation should not adversely affect wildlife habitat and should seek to recognize the positive role that conservation practices and biodiversity can play to address food safety concerns;
  • Expand the direct marketing exemption so that farmers selling directly to schools, institutions or consumers are not required to establish an expensive tracing system (Under the current bill we can access online, farms that sell only their own unprocessed, identity-preserved products in a wholesale market may be required to conform to the same expensive, electronic tracking requirements as large agri-businesses);
  • Ensure that new food safety regulations are consistent with the federal organic standards, which already have traceability and other measures that support food safety;
  • Require farmers to maintain paper records of farm sales receipts to the first buyer of the product (rather than electronic records of all sales through the entire food supply chain);
  • Direct the FDA to ensure new produce standards focus on the highest-risk problems in the fresh produce sector.

Don't get me wrong, food safety is important. But remember that it was large corporations aggregating products from many producers (and often cutting big corners along the way) that caused the most dangerous and widespread food scares.

I hope that the House leadership comes to its senses in the morning. Letting the bill sit a few weeks will allow legislators to address concerns that both protect food safety and do not unfairly burden small, mid-sized, organic, or sustainable farmers' ability to earn a living.

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