House Blocked Debate, Sought to Limit States' Rights on Animal Welfare in Failed Farm Bill

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Another year, another farm bill down the drain.

It might sound as though that would have been a bad thing, but it looks like lawmakers' inability to work together actually worked out for the better this time.

Of course, Republicans tried to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP -- AKA food stamps) funding by $20.5 billion. And Democrats tried to cut agricultural subsidies instead. Given the current political climate, that was pretty much a given.

What should have come as a surprise was that Republicans actually attempted to inhibit states' rights.

Sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, the King Amendment would have restricted states from passing their own agricultural laws that differ from the federal government's, ranging from mandatory labeling of GMOs to worker safety to animal welfare.

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Last Tuesday, the House Rules Committee led by Rep. Pete Sessions declined to allow the House to debate three bipartisan amendments that affect animal welfare in the farming industry: one that would have standardized operations on egg farms, one that would banned the slaughter and subsequent consumption of healthy horses, and the highly reviled King Amendment.

The Denham-Schrader amendment addressed the issue of egg-laying hens, often acknowledged as one of the most abused animals in factory farming. The amendment sought to institutionalize higher standards in the egg industry. It called for doubling the space per laying hen. Currently, most caged laying hens are given 67 square inches of laying space -- less than an average sheet of paper. The measure was intended to mimic Proposition 2 in California, which passed in 2008. It was supported not only by veterinary groups, animal welfare groups, and consumers -- as you might expect -- but also by the United Egg Producers, which represents 90 percent of the egg industry It was struck from the farm bill.

Horses were not up for debate either. Many advocates have called for an end to the slaughter of healthy horses for consumption and a crack down on horse soring -- a terrible practice of inflicting pain on horses hooves to get that high gate in Tennessee walking horses and many show rings. While many animal welfare advocates and average citizens want to see an end to such practices, the House didn't want to touch it.

While the refusals to debate these two measures was frustrating enough for animal welfare advocates, the denial of debate on the King amendment -- a.k.a. the Protect Interstate Commerce Act -- was by far the worst. Essentially, the amendment infringed upon states rights to devise their own agricultural laws; if it would have passed, only the federal government would have been allowed to set legal standards for animal welfare.

The Humane Society brought in a legal expert to review the amendment.

"It is so broadly and vaguely written [that] even though the intention is to limit animal welfare law, all aspects of agriculture law could have been affected," said Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society.

The amendment could have potentially affected everything from state requirements for mandatory labeling of GMOs to interstate importation of timber. It would have nullified existing laws pertaining to animal welfare and other state agriculture regulations.

Specifically, it would have affected Florida's precedent setting ban on gestation crates -- the tiny metal crates in which female breeding sows are kept for the majority of their lives. In 2002, Florida was the first state in the country to enact such a ban. Eight states have followed suit since.

King and his supporters claim that having uniform agricultural laws across the country would make it easier for large-scale producers. No doubt.

Pacelle of the Humane Society had a less optimistic take on the measure.

"The King amendment was not just an affront to animal welfare, but also to the longstanding Constitutional rights of the states to protect the health, safety and welfare of their citizens and local businesses."

Since there was to be no debate on the King amendment, had the farm bill passed, the amendment would have gone along with it. The Humane Society, other animal welfare groups, and mandatory labeling activists urged the public to contact their representatives to demand an end to the farm bill.

The bill was struck down late last week, 234 to 195. The majority of the debate focused on the massive cuts to the food stamp program.

The five-year bill was up for renewal last year and there's no telling when a new one will finally pass or what it will look like.

Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.

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