Economy & Budget

Why a bill about catfish will show whether Ryan’s serious about regulatory reform

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) convened a needed Task Force on Reducing Regulatory Burdens as part of his legislative agenda, “A Better Way.” The Speaker and his colleagues who worked on the task force have rightly identified the massive regulatory burden imposed by federal bureaucrats as an obstacle to economic growth and a distortion of our constitutional form of government. That is why it is baffling that Ryan has failed to bring regulatory reform legislation that recently passed the Senate to the floor of the House for a vote.

The tale is one of catfish and courage.

{mosads}The catfish you eat are regulated by the federal government. That regulation used to take place at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It now takes place at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But how great is the threat posed by catfish? Microscopic. Catfish are a type of fish classified as a siluriformes, and the USDA reports that in the last two decades, there has only been one reported case of salmonella from this class of fish. Clearly, catfish do not pose a threat to the general public or your kitchen. So why the regulatory crackdown on these delectable whiskered siluriformes?

Cronyism and shortsighted political maneuvering are the culprits.

Vietnam exports a close cousin of catfish to the United States, known as pangasius. It competes with catfish from America’s South, and is often preferred by American consumers over the domestic option. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), not content to respect consumer choice, worked to rig the system to get his prefered outcome. He got language in a massive 2008 food stamp bill, which included a small farm section, to move the regulation of catfish from the FDA to the USDA.

Why did Cochran promote the move? To protect the catfish industry in his home state of Mississippi. His tactic, as The Wall Street Journal noted, “required classifying pangasius as catfish after all, and claiming that there was a public-health risk where none existed. The true motive was to impose high new compliance costs on Vietnamese exporters, who might then be priced out of the U.S. market.” As the USDA’s website notes, “for years, Mississippi has led the nation in farm-raised catfish with 275 catfish farms and sales valued at $179.2 million.”

Cochran chose to distort the marketplace, and use the tool of the left — regulation — to protect a home-state product. He allowed the principles to which the Founding Fathers subscribed our nation of a limited federal government with little power to be trumped by his interest in advancing corporate cronyism.

Happily, some senators were more interested in rolling back the regulatory state than promoting their home state at the expense of federalism. Under the leadership of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Senate passed S.J. Res. 28, legislation to keep the USDA from inspecting catfish. The legislation passed the Senate by a vote of 55-43 in May, despite the fact that the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voted to keep the keep the statist inspection regime intact.

Now the legislation is pending in the House. But it isn’t moving. This is a surprising development, since Ryan has positioned himself as a champion of regulatory reform. But Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) has taken up the case of capitalism and the Constitution, and has led the effort to get the resolution a vote in the House. She took the courageous step of authoring a letter to the Speaker, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), asking them to bring up the measure before the August break. By the latest count, 203 members, Republicans and Democrats, have signed the letter.

Not only has Hartzler demonstrated farsightedness in addressing this issue, she wasn’t afraid to take on powerful interests on the House Committee on Agriculture, even though she is a member of that committee. What an example of tenacious leadership.

Ryan should follow her lead.

McCarthy didn’t schedule the resolution for a vote before the August recess, and the Speaker didn’t force a vote. (All this despite the fact that there was time for debate on the House schedule: Members adjourned a day early for their seven-week break.) But some in the House oppose the measure; Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), for example, evidently has some compunction about the combination of catfish and capitalism. He sent a letter to House leadership asking for the bill not to be brought up.

It is one thing to oppose a resolution, of course. But is something very different to oppose the House debating a measure that the Senate passed, one that would end a program that the Government Accountability Office has cited on 10 occasions for being duplicative and costing the taxpayers money. Crawford is trying to keep an open debate from occurring and letting the House work its will on legislation that 203 members of the chamber, on a bipartisan basis, want debated.

Shutting down debate shouldn’t be the answer to a competition of ideas.

Ryan, though, can put this situation right. Indeed, as the policy paper for his own agenda states, “The American people now spend $1.89 trillion every year just to comply with Washington’s rules — approximately $15,000 per household. From heath care and finance to manufacturing and energy, job creators spend more time jumping through hoops than expanding opportunities.”

When the House comes back into session in September, S.J. Res. 28 should be one of the first bills the Speaker brings to the floor of the House for debate and a vote. After all, a significant number of members want a debate and a vote, the Speaker is on the record about how troublesome regulations are and a resolution passed by the Senate is ready to redress this problem.

Advancing conservative policies doesn’t get more turnkey than this. The bill isn’t just about catfish; it is about Speaker Ryan making a modest down payment on his plans for regulatory reform and a confident America having a debate about a bill on the House floor.

Siefring is director of government relations for FreedomWorks. His views are his own. Follow him on Twitter @NeilSiefring.

Tags Catfish FDA Food and Drug Administration John McCain Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan Rick Crawford Thad Cochran U.S. Department of Agriculture USDA
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