The Administration

Puppy mills aren’t partisan: Animal abuse deserves scrutiny

With a single stroke, the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week effectively invalidated seven state animal welfare laws barring the sale of dogs from puppy mills with gross violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).

It’s a stunning blow to animals everywhere, as well as to federalist principles, good governance, transparency and to President Trump’s promise of a Washington, D.C., that is accountable to all Americans.

{mosads}On Feb 4, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) removed without warning thousands of animal welfare inspection reports from its website, information that documented the treatment of animals at research laboratories, horse training facilities and dog breeding operations across the country.


For more than a decade, this data was readily available, and it was an important resource for consumers, journalists and animal welfare supporters to monitor abuse.                                  

It was also critical for businesses. No less than seven states currently prohibit pet stores from sourcing dogs from breeders who violate the AWA.

It is both arduous and impractical for small businesses to issue FOIA requests for inspection reports, as USDA suggests. FOIA requests are costly and can take years, making legitimate compliance with state laws a dubious endeavor.

One of the central themes in President Trump’s tenure so far is eliminating regulations that are burdensome to businesses. The USDA’s deplorable action has the effect of increasing that burden – but we might not have Trump to blame.

Protect the Harvest is an organization that exists to fight animal welfare groups on behalf of big agriculture. They’ve been involved in many of the most high profile animal welfare fights in recent years, including efforts to combat puppy mills.

In 2010, founder Forrest Lucas spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to bankroll opposition to Proposition B in Missouri, which established common-sense standards for the care of dogs in commercial breeding operations.

More recently, the group took part in the fight over a Massachusetts ballot measure to ban the extreme confinement of farm animals. Lucas donated $200,000 to oppose the initiative, and executive director Brian Klippenstein served as an opposition spokesperson.

Now, Klippenstein runs the Trump transition effort at USDA.

Protect the Harvest’s constituency will surely benefit from the reduced availability of inspection records. Animal abusers everywhere will be shielded from oversight. Advocates, lawmakers and watchdog groups will find it harder to do their jobs.

And those who voted in November to shake up a system of government that had become disconnected from the governed will have enfranchised a new regime at USDA that favors hiding taxpayer-funded work product, in violation of the intent of our nation’s original thinkers.

The Founding Fathers clearly contemplated the importance of public access to information. James Madison wrote, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy…” Patrick Henry said, “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”

Republicans might agree. Senator Jeff Flake publishes an annual “Government Wastebook” compiling the most egregious uses of taxpayer dollars by the federal government, much of it animal related (this year’s report revealed $3.4 million to subsidize “hamster cage matches”). And, earlier this month, Rep. Ken Calvert introduced the Federal Accountability in Chemical Testing (FACT) Act, requiring transparency in federal animal testing.

As former Republican congressional staff members and dedicated animal welfare advocates, we condemn the actions of the USDA, and call upon the agency to restore transparency immediately. We also urge the Trump administration to purge elements within its transition team that would sacrifice liberties to prop up their antiquated business practices.

Limited government doesn’t just mean eliminating regulations for its own sake; it requires a system that works for the taxpayer. It means, at minimum, preventing special interests from co-opting executive agencies for their own purposes. The Tea Party was a movement driven, as Stephen Bannon described, by anger over collusion between corporations and the upper levels of government.

Protect the Harvest is big agriculture unleashed, and if USDA works only for a discrete segment of the industry it will be the same kind of cronyism that mobilized so many following the 2008 financial crisis.

Don’t let it happen.

John Connor Cleveland is policy advisor and special assistant to the president & CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. Marty Irby is senior advisor at the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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