Politics hinder farm bill's transition to law


Lawmakers stonewall joint document's approval; legislation apt to linger in committee, insiders say

Washington-While the farm bill passes in both congressional houses, vast contrasts between the House and Senate versions have lawmakers at odds on sending a joint measure to President Bush for final approval.

A mere glance at the documents exposes major disparities. For example,the House of Representatives' version, formally known as the Farm SecurityAct, is 600 pages while the Senate's Agriculture, Conservation, and RuralEnhancement Act is 900 pages longer.

"It's a huge report, about eight inches thick," says Dr. NiallFinnegan, director of the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA)Governmental Relations Division. "The House version doesn't even comeclose to addressing what the Senate's package has in it."

The onset of compromise

To come to an agreement, lawmakers must hash out the disparities in ajoint congressional conference committee.

But even this poses a hurdle because due to the nature of the language,two committees have jurisdiction over its consolidation. At presstime, theHouse government reform committee and the agriculture committee both claimrights to its review.

"This is a major stumbling block," Finnegan says. "Jurisdictionis something closely guarded because that's power."

To begin productive discussions, one committee must concede to the otherby formally waving its rights. Finnegan says the government reform committeelikely will yield.

Tackling the issues

As that resolves, so begins tedious negotiations concerning the bills'themselves. The legislation's major objectives are to strengthen the safetynet for agricultural producers, enhance resource conservation and ruraldevelopment, provide farm credits and fund agriculture-related research.

But they're bogged down by dozens of amendments, many of which aren'tmentioned in both documents.

One such amendment on the Senate side calls for veterinarians and otherprofessional employees of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)to receive overtime pay, which the Pay Act currently bans.

It's an inequity, says Dr. Dale Boyle, executive vice president of theFederal Veterinarians. "It's only right that veterinarians are paidovertime. It should be a given."

But the amendment has no companion in the House version, and could fallby the wayside, Finnegan says.

Advanced animal protection

More likely to survive bill consolidation are key animal protection measuresfound in both legislative works.

Backed by Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado veterinarian, a provision againstcockfighting bars the interstate shipment or export of birds for fightingand the export of fighting dogs. The measure increases penalties for animalfighting violations, doubling jail terms and tripling fines.

Also included in the farm bill on both sides is language on humane andpublic health concerns regarding non-ambulatory farm animals. The provisionmandates humane euthanasia of animals too weak from illness or injury tostand or walk in stockyards, auctions and other intermediate livestock markets.These ill or injured animals also would be prevented from going to slaughter.

Puppy mills are targeted in the Senate's farm bill in an amendment knownas the Puppy Protection Act, which acts against acute abuses in the industry.The language calls for a "three strikes you're out" system forrepeat offenders of the Animal Welfare Act, limiting the number of littersand mandating females be at least a year old before bred.

This amendment isn't included in the House's version, but nearly identicallanguage has been introduced in a separate measure and could be added tothe farm bill's final product.

Against the clock

To uphold DVM interests, Finnegan and his staff are lobbying for lawmakersto iron out the farm bill's differences while making sure pro-veterinaryamendments move on to the White House.

"It's the biggest thing we're chewing on," he says. "Eventhough the issues we're interested in are very small and aren't big bonesof contention, they could still easily be thrown out.

"Even though there's a lot of political fodder up there, I thinkthey're looking to resolve this. They don't want to do anything that mighthurt them come November."

If Congress stalls in the coming months, it's likely a lame duck congresscould be called after the fall recess, Finnegan says, so lawmakers can addfarm bill bravado to their campaigns.

"They know they can't duck the bullets and push this off until nextyear," he says. "They've got to do it now."

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