Repeat catfish inspection wastes taxpayer money

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There is a simple reason why Washington outsiders care about the farm bill. Farms grow food, and everyone eats, usually three times a day. While farms across the U.S. vary greatly, most agree that farmers are known for two things: hard work and common sense.

It was my fellow farmers in Cass County and other concerned citizens across Missouri who sent me to Washington to crack down on out-of-control spending and restore some much-needed common sense to a seemingly endless flow of government regulation.

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As part of the much-debated farm bill, I sponsored a provision that not only cuts waste but removes a de facto trade barrier. It’s a Department of Agriculture catfish regulation program that has become an embarrassment on Capitol Hill.

Designed as a trade barrier, a special interest lobby worked to switch regulation of catfish from the Food and Drug Administration over to the USDA in order to impede competition with imported fish. In the process, it created a duplicative federal agency that would oversee catfish at a cost of $170 million of taxpayer money over the next 10 years. All for a job the FDA is already doing for only $7 million.

The original program was sold by lobbyists as a food safety necessity. That was before the USDA’s own risk experts contradicted those claims. It was also before the former food safety chiefs from the USDA and the FDA both blasted the program as wasteful.

But duplicative waste is not the end of it. The program now puts U.S. agriculture exports in the way of an impending trade war. The idea that a program, first introduced in the 2008 farm bill, would now be hurting American farmers is as ludicrous as the idea that taxpayers should be spending more than $100 million to have two federal agencies do the same job.

Governments in countries to which our American farmers send tens of billions of dollars’ worth of corn, soybeans, pork, dairy, beef and cotton have warned the U.S. that the USDA catfish program is a barrier to trade. The former head of the World Trade Organization court agrees.

We must not invite this harm to our vital and growing export markets across the globe. To jeopardize these exports in any measure over something as silly as a duplicative, wasteful catfish regulation program is inconceivable. 

This is just the kind of Beltway mischief that legislators who actually care about both federal spending and farmers should stand up against. And many of my colleagues have. 

First, the House Agriculture Committee passed my repeal amendment, and then the full House passed the farm bill. Last year, when the Senate had the opportunity to vote on getting rid of this program, it voted overwhelmingly for repeal as well.

Farmers depend on cooperation in everything from planting their fields to harvesting their crops. Some complain that Washington shows no sign of that cooperation. While I am a proud Republican, I have been pleased to work across the aisle with Democrats like Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California on repealing wasteful government programs. 

This month, 76 House members from both parties signed a letter that I led to our respective leadership urging the program’s repeal. America’s farmers would be pleased to see that President Obama agrees and has also urged the end of the USDA program. 

Those who have read the Government Accountability Office report on the catfish program know it has spent $20 million and not inspected a single fish. Not a gill, not a fin, not a whisker — nothing. It is impossible for lawmakers with any sense of fiscal conscience to think this program belongs anywhere but in the annals of wasteful projects that once existed, or perhaps as a memorial on the off-ramp of the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.”

The USDA catfish regulation program wastes taxpayer dollars and hurts American farmers. Farm bill conferees, including leadership of the House and Senate Agriculture committees, now have a chance to get rid of this program once and for all. If they fail, they risk leaving a farm bill legacy that shortchanges farmers. Such a move would indeed challenge, and perhaps defy, that all-important common sense. 

Hartzler has represented Missouri’s 4th Congressional District since 2011. She serves on the Agriculture, Armed Services and Budget committees.

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