UPDATE: We spoke too soon! In one of the most uncharacteristic moves of this entire Congressional session, Republican opposition melted away on Sunday, the bill was dropped back onto the Senate calendar and minutes later passed by unanimous vote. See our coverage, “Zombie Food Safety Act Resurrected by Senate“
This time it looks like it’s dead for good. Despite passing both houses by wide margins of bi-partisan support, the controversy-laden Food Safety Modernization Act (S 510) has died, a victim of end-of-session Senate gridlock and a resurgent GOP that is perfectly happy to see nothing much get done before they take back the House of Representatives in a few weeks.
Food crusader Michael Pollan calls this “The best opportunity in a generation to improve the safety of the American food supply,” But other groups – from big agriculture to small producers – hated the bill because in order to improve safety it increased regulation. And a lot of people – from anti-corporate lefties to anti-government Tea Partiers – decried the bill as a massive power-grab (see “Is the Food Safety Act a Blessing or a Corporatist Curse?)
Would the bill have really resulted in folks getting arrested for eating produce from their own gardens? Probably not, although with government agencies already raiding small raw-food coops and Amish raw-milk sellers in the name of “food safety”, those fears didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. But I guess we’ll never know, since the bill is dead and the next Congress, dominated by new Tea-Party-backed Republican conservatives, is not likely to take up the issue.
Writing at Grist, Tom Philpott describes the current legislative process thusly:
The Democrats desperately try to appease what ever industry might be affected by a given piece of legislation, hoping to entice Republican support. And the Republicans, determined to deny Obama any semblance of victory, do their best to pull the rug out. The health care and stimulus acts, as woefully compromised and inadequate as they were, only barely managed to sneak their way through the thickets of Democratic fecklessness and GOP obstructionism.
Here’s the timeline:
- House passes the bill in July of 2009.
- Loooooooong pause.
- The Senate finally takes up the bill in November 2010, eventually passing it by a 73-25 bi-partisan vote. The Senate version includes changes: the Tester Amendment, exempting small farms and producers from the regulations; and some revenue-enhancing fees.
- But under the Constitution, revenue bills must originate with the House. The Senate-passed bill is unconstitutional. Oops. Suddenly, with the end of session looming, it’s back to square one.
- To slip it back in under the wire, the House adds the full text of the Food Safety Act to the Continuing Resolution, the omnibus spending bill the government needs to keep running after Friday. For those of you keeping score, that means the bill has now passed the House TWICE. Partisan bickering has gridlocked every spending bill (as well as just about everything else), so the CR was a last-minute fix that HAD to happen or the government would shut down.
- Did we say it HAD to happen? Hahahahahah.
- Republicans block the Continuing Resolution, too. Why shouldn’t they? They’ll be in charge in a few weeks and can make deep cuts to things they don’t like.
- Instead, Republicans propose a short-term, bare-bones Continuing Resolution to keep the government open until they take over. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) makes sure the Food Safety Act is NOT included. “It’s not going anywhere. It’s dead,” Coburn told ABC News today.
- Democrats cave.
- Food Safety Modernization Act dies on the floor of the Senate, despite having passed both houses at one point by wide margins.
So to reiterate: Democrats finally managed to ease this through the Senate, but took a wrong turn and got lost in the woods. When they said “Give us one more chance,” Republicans said “Forget it, we’re driving now and we’re not going down that road again.”
Maybe we can re-examine the food safety issue in three years. Depending on who’s in charge at that point. Hopefully next time around they’ll learn from this debacle.
- Zombie Food Safety Act Resurrected by Senate
- Is the Food Safety Act a Blessing or a Corporatist Curse
- The Food Safety Act is Now Law. But How Will It Be Enforced?