House passes special meat investigator bill as Senate action awaits
The House last week passed a controversial bill that would establish an office at the Agriculture Department to investigate the meat and poultry industry along with other provisions the sponsors say would reduce the price of food and fuel.
The vote was 221 to 204 with seven Republicans joining most of the Democrats to pass the bill while five Democrats voted against it.
Principal sponsor Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., calls the bill the “Lower Food and Fuel Costs Act,” but the provision to establish the “Office of the Special Investigator for Competition Matters” has attracted the most attention.
The Senate Agriculture Committee has scheduled a business meeting on Wednesday to consider two companion measures: S.3870 the Meat and Poultry Special Investigator Act of 2022 and S.4030 the Cattle Price Discovery and Transparency Act of 2022.
The House and Senate bills reflect the conflict between some meat producers who believe that both the cattle markets and the processing industry are unfair to them while other cattle producers and the meat and poultry processing industries say any problems are related to market forces and the coronavirus pandemic.
The House Republicans who voted for the bill last week were Midwesterners — Don Bacon of Nebraska, Randy Feenstra of Iowa, Vicki Hartzler of Missouri, Ashley Hinson of Iowa, Dusty Johnson of South Dakota. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Marionnette Miller-Meeks of Iowa.
The Democrats who opposed it were Henry Cuellar of Texas, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, Vincente Gonzalez of Texas, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Peter Welch of Vermont.
Four members did not vote: Reps. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., Sean Casten, D-Ill., Mike Garcia, R-Calif., and Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y.
In a news release after the vote, Spanberger noted that it included:
▪ The Meat and Poultry Special Investigator Act — also known as the Meat Packing Special Investigator Act — which she co-sponsored with Miller-Meeks.
▪ The Butcher Block Act to expand regional livestock and meat processing capacity, the bill she cosponsored with Johnson.
She also noted that the House added by voice vote the American Food Supply Chain Resiliency Act that she co-sponsored with Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio. to establish “Supply Chain Regional Resource Centers” through cooperative agreements with USDA.
The House also added by voice vote an amendment offered by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., that authorizes USDA to carry out a program that reduces dependence on foreign sources of fertilizers and encourages more efficient use of fertilizer.
“Congress cannot shy away from addressing the urgent economic challenges that our local communities and our entire country — and that challenge continues to be inflation,” said Spanberger on the floor of the House.
“We know how rising prices, consolidation across industries, and supply chain challenges are impacting America’s families, businesses, and seniors. And as lawmakers, our job is to listen to the people we represent — and then respond with legislation that can help solve those problems. And indeed, this package — the Lower Food and Fuel Costs Act — is just that.”
House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott, G-Ga., praised the passage of the bill and thanked Democratic Reps. Cindy Axne of Iowa, Angie Craig of Minnesota, Josh Harder and Khanna of Calfiornia, and Republicans Johnson and Ashley Hinson of Iowa “for their hard work on their respective provisions in this legislation.”
But Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, voted against the bill and said on the House floor he was voting against it because “this bill does nothing to lower food and fuel costs.”
Thompson continued, “Adding insult to injury, the White House has been quick to blame the private sector and alleged industry concentration for the current crises. Economists across the spectrum, including former Obama and Clinton administration officials, have dismissed the strategy as misleading, at best, or otherwise blatantly political.”
“So, it is not surprising that at the behest of the White House, we are debating a package whose anchor piece of legislation perpetuates a tired narrative of blame, duplicates existing authorities, ignores industry and producers, and undermines the Department of Justice.
“It’s also not surprising the party of ‘defund the police’ has also become the party of more cops for cows.”
National Farmers Union President Rob Larew praised the House action.
“Now that the House has taken this important step forward, we encourage the Senate to send this to President Biden swiftly.”
Brandon Reeves, executive director of the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association, congratulated Spanberger on the passage of the bill and said it “looks forward to working with her and her team on future efforts to enhance transparency and accountability.”
U.S. Cattlemen’s Association President Brooke Miller pointed out that seven Republicans had voted for the bill and thanked Spanberger “for bringing this bill across the finish line.”
But the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association expressed “strong disappointment” on the House action.
“Rising food, fuel, and fertilizer prices are hurting cattle producers around the country, but Congress is relentlessly focused on political posturing through this special investigator bill,” said NCBA Vice President of Government Affairs Ethan Lane.
“NCBA strongly supports fairness and transparency in the market, but Congress is wasting time with legislative proposals in search of a problem while ignoring real issues impacting cattle producers.”
NCBA added, “The special investigator section of the Lower Food and Fuel Costs Act would create a new position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate broad ‘anticompetitive’ matters.
“Unfortunately, this position duplicates the work of numerous federal investigative agencies — including the USDA Packers and Stockyards Division, Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Trade Commission, and Department of Homeland Security — who have existing authority, staff, and budget to investigate anticompetitive actions.
“This bill is also unfunded, which will divert critical resources away from the Agricultural Marketing Service of USDA at the expense of critical programs producers rely on like market data reporting, meat grading, and the Cattle Contract Library pilot program.”
North American Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts, who represents meat processors, said, “We are disappointed the House voted to waste $9 million in taxpayer dollars on a redundant special investigator when that money would be much better spent helping Americans seeking assistance from record inflation.”
“This bill simply replicates the authorities already granted to USDA and the Department of Justice to enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act and creates an expensive new government office.”
The American Soybean Association said it supports the biofuels and precision agriculture provisions.
ASA President Brad Doyle, a soybean farmer from Arkansas, said, “ASA applauds the House for recognizing supply chain challenges in agriculture, the role of biofuels as a renewable, home-grown energy source, the importance of improving access to precision agriculture technologies, and the need for additional resources in EQIP for nutrient management.”
ASA pointed out that the bill includes $200 million in biofuels infrastructure to expand biofuels availability and utilization modeled after the Higher Blends Infrastructure Incentive Program at USDA, “which has proven successful by increasing access to biofuels by 1 billion gallons per year.”
“It also includes $500 million that would provide additional USDA National Resources Conservation Service payments to farmers for implementation of nutrient management practices and to increase cost share and practice payments to incentivize the purchase of precision agriculture equipment, systems, and technology. Soy farmers appreciate these steps to leverage conservation and precision ag and reduce grower input costs.”
National Young Farmers Coalition Policy Campaign Co-Director David Howard said the Spanberger-Gonzalez amendment on supply chains “would codify and build on this creative and responsive investment in the success of local and regional food systems.”
The Renewable Fuels Association praised the bill’s “permanent removal of barriers to selling lower-cost, lower-carbon ethanol blends like E15 all year long, as well as additional infrastructure funding that will support the expansion of low-carbon liquid fuels.”
Senators are evaluating the non-meat and poultry provisions of the bill, a House aide told The Hagstrom Report.
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