Federal beef boss proposes self-serving changes to rules

Some things in life — and in politics — just don’t mix well; like alcohol and driving, or religion and, well, politics. I’ve recently discovered something else that doesn’t mix well and can make for bad public policy — trial lawyers and regulation of the cattle industry. Yet such a battle royal is brewing in a heretofore little-known office within the massive U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) is currently headed by a former plaintiff’s trial lawyer. The outcome of this bubbling controversy might have much to do not only with the future price of beef in America, but also with its quality.

What is happening at GIPSA is a microcosm of problems throughout the Obama administration as it attempts to implement the regulatory state that anchors its philosophical foundation.

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Tensions within the American cattle and beef industry are not of recent vintage and frequently boil down to not-unusual differences in perspectives between large producers and smaller, independent livestock producers. Tensions exist also between the cattle producers and the stockyards to which the cattle are shipped for eventual slaughter and packaging for wholesalers and retailers. All of this, of course, is not unique to the cattle and beef industry. Nor is this industry alone in feeling the pinch of a sluggish economy.

The problem arises in how the Obama administration appears to be addressing these problems; that is, with more regulation and tougher enforcement of federal laws. As with other sectors of the economy, however, using the heavy hand of federal regulation as the tool of choice with which to correct market imbalances, is a recipe not for salvaging an industry but, at best, for exacerbating problems and, at worst, crippling an industry. Add to the mix a regulatory boss with a background in suing the very industry he now regulates, and one can readily understand the apprehension among many cattlemen and beef producers.

J. Dudley Butler is the administrator of GIPSA. Butler’s pre-administration career consisted largely of suing the poultry industry as a trial lawyer in the Canton, Miss., firm known as the “Butler Farms and Ranch Law Group.” Since becoming head of this enforcement arm of the Agriculture Department in mid-2009, Butler has moved aggressively to court small, independent producers, many of whom are active in groups such as the Organization for Competitive Markets and other liberal-leaning cattle organization he helped form or in which he was an active member.  

Butler is actively pushing to expand the scope of the decades-old Packers and Stockyards Act — which will make it easier for trial lawyers (such as Mr. Butler) to successfully sue meat and poultry companies.  This heavy-handed attempt to push through new federal regulations without seeking Congressional approval has gotten him in hot water.

Earlier this month, for example, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, and some 100 of his colleagues in both major parties wrote Butler’s boss, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, complaining about Butler’s precipitous move to accomplish by regulation certain amendments to the Packers and Stockyards Act that the Congress expressly rejected in 2008 when it passed the last major Farm Bill. The congressmen expressed the fears of many livestock and poultry producers and processors in urging Vilsack to rein in his GIPSA chief. In their view, the proposed GIPSA rules are too “sweeping” in their scope, and would have major negative consequences for the beef industry, to be proposed without first conducting a “thorough economic analysis.”

Whether Vilsack listens more to this powerful group of legislators and the many beef producers whose concerns they reflect, more than has his subordinate at GIPSA, remains to be seen. If not, and if the Butler-proposed rules go into effect, Vilsack will have made it demonstrably easier for Butler — when he leaves federal service and returns to his plaintiffs law firm — to turn around and sue the very industry he now regulates. Talk about revolving-door government service.

Barr was a Republican House representative from Georgia from 1995 to 2003.