Solving one of Reagan’s ‘problems’

Ronald Reagan famously described the ever-expanding nature of government when he said, “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth!”

The U.S. House of Representatives now has before it the opportunity to prove him wrong. We have the opportunity to eliminate the Agriculture Department’s (USDA) new catfish inspection program, and, by doing so, ditch unnecessary and exorbitant spending, save American taxpayers millions of dollars each year, and avert a costly potential trade war with our Southeast Asian trading partners.

Historically, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has successfully regulated catfish along with all seafood imported into the United States. Under the guise of “food safety,” however, lawmakers looking to protect catfish industries in their states dropped a last-minute provision in the 2008 Farm Bill without a vote that moved the inspection of domestic and foreign catfish to the USDA.

As a result, we have two agencies inspecting fish. If we allow this provision to stand, the USDA will inspect catfish and the FDA will regulate all other fish and seafood coming into the United States. Worse than the duplication of efforts, before it ever inspected one single fish, the USDA spent upwards of $20 million to set up their inspection program, and the program is set to cost the American taxpayer a staggering $14 million a year while the FDA’s catfish oversight costs around $700,000 a year.

The non-partisan Government Accountability Office, the government “watchdog”, has called the USDA program a waste no fewer than 10 times (February 2011, March 2011, May 2012, February 2013, April 2013April 2014, December 2014, February 2015, April 2015, April 2016) yet the program lives on, wasting millions of Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars.

Supporters of the expensive and duplicative regulatory “fix” try to justify the establishment of a secondary inspection regime due to a “food safety risk”.  Experts debunk this claim.

The former chief food safety expert at both the USDA and FDA, Dr. David Acheson, has said, “No one was concerned about the safety of catfish until Southern catfish interests determined the USDA regulatory system would effectively block its imported competition at the border. This restriction is based on regulatory differences between USDA and FDA that does not make the product safer, just more difficult to import.”

But that’s not all. In addition to the waste of valuable taxpayer dollars, this de facto trade barrier could instigate a trade war with our Southeast Asian trading partners. The USDA’s program could ban imports of foreign catfish for anywhere from five to seven years, and since the USDA has found no human safety basis for this program, it could violate our trade obligations and result in costly retaliation against U.S. soybean, pork, beef, dairy, and poultry exports.

As you can see, this is not a food safety problem. This is a waste problem, a taxpayer-funded problem, a duplication problem, and an accountability problem. This program, as Reagan would put it, is the government growing itself.

I introduced a bill in 2012, and again in 2013, to eliminate this wasteful program. And before it was stripped from the final bill, this provision was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in its version of the 2014 Farm Bill. More recently, a bipartisan coalition in the Senate voted to get rid of the program through the use of the Congressional Review Act, a tool for Congress to overrule and invalidate an agency regulation.

The House is now tasked with voting on whether it supports getting rid of the program as well. There is, once again, overwhelming bipartisan support to end this wasteful program. Even President Obama proposed getting rid of this program in his 2014 budget. Common sense appears to be taking hold in Washington.

In the House, almost 200 representatives have signed letters calling for a vote on this issue, including a majority of House Republicans. The stage is set for our government to prove that it can be a good steward of tax dollars. The Senate has voted to do away with the program and now the House is poised to as well.

It is time for House leadership to listen to the people of America who are tired of wasteful, duplicative programs and to allow a vote to finally end an unnecessary program that is costing taxpayers millions of dollars. It is time to prove Reagan wrong and erase a wasteful and unnecessary government program.

Rep. Hartzler represents Missouri’s Fourth Congressional District.

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