Iowa congressman outflanks the animal rights movement

David Martosko Executive Editor
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Thanks to a 2008 ballot measure bankrolled by the powerful Humane Society of the United States, California’s egg-laying hens will get expensive new accommodations by 2015, and there’s little anyone can do about it. But Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King aims to contain the financial damage to as few farmers as possible.

Last week King managed to add an amendment to the 2012 farm bill that would undercut the animal rights movement’s larger aim, spelled out in a companion law that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed in 2010. That law, the first of its kind, prevents other states’ farmers from selling eggs in California that don’t meet the costly new standard.

The new hen cages required for California egg producers are far larger than what is now the industry standard. Scientific opinions are mixed on the question of whether there will be a net animal welfare benefit.

A seven-year gap between the law’s passage and its 2015 implementation was meant to give California egg producers enough time to buy new equipment, but farmers in other states whose eggs make it to California would have less than three years to catch up.

The House Committee on Agriculture passed King’s “Protect Interstate Commerce Act” on Thursday night, slipping it into the five-year farm legislation on a voice vote. Humane Society of the United States CEO Wayne Pacelle watched, shaking his head, as his multimillion-dollar, multi-year push threatening to make the incredible, edible egg more expensive came to a screeching — if temporary — halt.

On his blog, Pacelle called the measure “almost certainly unconstitutional,” and accused King of opposing “any laws to protect animals, and perhaps … laws to protect the environment, workers, or public safety.” But neither he nor any other spokespersons from the wealthy animal rights group would defend that statement when The Daily Caller asked about King’s Thursday surprise.

The congressman, however, was happy to discuss the thinking behind it.

“This is right. This is the fix we need,” King told TheDC on Friday. “It doesn’t fix everything, but it fixes the states and their political subdivisions regulating food production everywhere in America from a single location — in violation of the Commerce Clause [of the U.S. Constitution].”

Calling the constant battles between farmers and animal rights activists a game of “high-stakes poker,” King chuckled about Pacelle’s post-game complaints. “When I read his blog,” he said, “wow — it was more effective than even I thought.”

Most of the farming sector agrees with King that the Humane Society of the United States, whose 2012 federal income tax return showed net assets of $187.5 million at the end of that year, is a danger to the continuing viability of animal agriculture. (RELATED: Animal rights group to sue pork farmers over … paperwork problems?)

Pacelle is a dietary vegan, meaning that he eats nothing sourced from animals — including milk, eggs and honey. His organization is not an umbrella group for the thousands of humane societies that shelter lost pets, and doesn’t manage any of them. But it does advocate vegetarianism — a position that makes some in production agriculture suspicious that Pacelle’s goal is to eventually eliminate their line of work.

His deputies have on occasion given farmers reason to worry. In October 2006, Miyun Park, one of Pacelle’s vice presidents, conceded during an animal rights conference that “we don’t want any of these [farm] animals to be raised and killed. But … we don’t have the luxury of waiting until we have the opportunity to get rid of the entire industry.”

King released a statement Thursday night promising that his amendment “will ensure that radical organizations like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and PETA are prohibited from establishing a patchwork of restrictive state laws aimed at slowly suffocating production agriculture out of existence.”

One surprising organization isn’t standing in Pacelle’s way: United Egg Producers, U.S. egg farmers’ largest lobby. Its senior vice president, Chad Gregory, did not respond to a request for comment.

Spooked by the 2008 California law, the trade group opted in July 2011 to work with the Humane Society of the United States instead of fighting it. United Egg Producers was outspent and outmaneuvered in the California ballot fight, and ultimately threw in the towel.

In addition to standards for egg-laying hens, some of the ballot measures championed by the Humane Society of the United States in recent years also targeted production methods used by pork and veal farmers. One, in 2002, added pregnant pigs to the state constitution of Florida as a protected class. Others outlawed tethers and crates that veal farmers use to manage their herds.

So the egg industry’s alliance with its former mortal enemy initially drew catcalls from its peers who raise pigs and cattle instead of chickens.

The National Pork Producers Council, for one, is siding with Rep. King. Spokesman Dave Warner told TheDC in an email Monday that his organization applauded the congressman “for keeping bad state law from becoming bad federal law.”

In a telephone interview, Kristina Butts, the executive director of legislative affairs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, also said the California law “should be re-evaluated, along with the [2010] law that requires action from other states.”

Butts told TheDC that the 230,000 cattle breeders, producers and feeders she represents “would like California to fix this problem at the state level, instead of making it a federal government question.”

With Steve King’s amendment part of the farm bill, Pacelle is preparing to fight a new battle when the legislation reaches the House floor. An amendment proposed by Oregon Democratic Rep Kurt Schrader would take California’s pending new egg standards and nationalize them. Costs, estimated in the billions of dollars nationally, would be passed on to consumers in the form of higher egg prices.

Although the long-browbeaten egg lobbyists are now working with the animal rights lobby and will support Schrader’s amendment, King isn’t worried.

“You know in their hearts they [egg farmers] agree with me,” he told TheDC. “If United Egg [Producers] is going to go out there and lobby for a Schrader amendment, their enthusiasm will be the equivalent of sending a poodle to a coon hunt.”

Warner warned TheDC that if Rep. King’s provision is stripped from the farm bill, the Humane Society of the United States would be able “to push through its ‘federal farm takeover bill” — meaning Schrader’s amendment.

“That legislation [Schrader’s] sets a dangerous precedent for allowing federal bureaucrats to tell America’s farmers how to raise and care for their animals,” Warner added. “And without King’s amendment, one state can tell the other 49 how to produce everything from pork to ethanol.”

And even if Schrader’s amendment should survive, King told TheDC, “that’s just eggs. If [Pacelle] is successful and gets a federal standard for cages for hens, that’s still — my language wipes out everything they’ve done with pork and veal.”

King doesn’t believe the famously aggressive Pacelle, who he said was “caught completely off-guard” Thursday night, will take last Thursday’s defeat lying down. But he does expect the rest of the animal agriculture world — the egg lobby notwithstanding — to rally to his cause.

“Do I think that Pacelle has the juice to try and peel my language off on the floor?” King asked. “The answer to that is: Will the [agriculture] groups rise up to defend it?”

Butts believes her cattlemen and cattlewomen will. “Our grassroots members are supportive of the King [legislative] language,” she told TheDC. “Very much so.”

Speaking of the constant pressure the Humane Society of the United States has put on livestock producers since Pacelle took the organization’s helm in 2004, she wouldn’t discount the long-term impact of egg legislation on other livestock sectors down the road.

“We know we’re part of their bigger plan,” she said. And in contrast to other animal rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, she added, “we’re seeing more of the Humane Society of the United States making inroads with legislation. PETA hasn’t.” (RELATED: PETA wastes perfectly good XXX domain on latest publicity stunt)

The 2007 farm bill will expire at the end of September, giving Congress precious little time to finalize a new one, get it passed and hammer out House-Senate differences in a conference. No matter what happens, Steve King will face a tough re-election challenge in his Western Iowa district just weeks later.

His challenger is Democrat Christie Vilsack, the wife of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

When TheDC asked if he was concerned about any electoral implications from his farm bill maneuver, King relished the idea of defending his actions in November.

“Her husband’s the Secretary of Agriculture,” he said. “She’s in a bad spot there, because … she and her husband and the president have to all be saying the same thing or they get caught in a wedge between each other. … I’m not worried about what she’s going to say.”

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David Martosko