NOBULL: The Congressional King of Industrial Agriculture

The Congressional King of Industrial Agriculture

Steve King’s Protect Interstate Commerce Act would undo decades of costly animal welfare improvements across the country.

August 7, 2013 • By James McWilliams2 Comments

Personally, I wouldn’t let Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) walk my dogs. Representing an Iowa district economically dependent on the industrialized slaughter of animals, King dedicates his days to crafting legislation that perpetuates animal suffering. This pursuit lands the man in good stead with Iowa’s meatier interest groups, but it alienates him from public opinion, one that’s becoming increasingly attentive to how badly we treat farm animals. Animal welfare was recently noted as “one of the top three most important issues for restaurant patrons—outranking organics and buying local by wide margins,” according to The Hill.

King has done more than ignore this newsflash; he’s thumbed his nose at it. Exhibit A: His recent contribution to the Farm Bill. Officially called the Protect Interstate Commerce Act (unofficially, the King Amendment), this provision seeks to exempt out-of-state producers from adhering to state-imposed agricultural stipulations should they wish to sell their products in that state. In other words, if California bans battery cages for laying eggs (which it does) and Iowa wants to import eggs laid in battery cages into California (which it does), it can. The latter trashes the former.

As suggested, the obvious targets of this initiative are those costly animal welfare improvements, the kind that are anathema to Iowa agribusiness. Many states—including Florida, California, and Arizona—have recently approved a variety of welfare measures designed to make life more tolerable for animals before they’re slaughtered and sautéed into dinner. Less cramped living conditions and anti force-feeding rules are two of the most popular provisions supported by states. An especially notable example of an animal welfare victory that would be rendered impotent by the King Amendment is California’s Proposition 2, the 2008 public initiative that banned veal crates for calves, gestation cages for sows, and battery cages for hens. Sixty-three percent of Californians supported Prop 2. But as far as King, who wants to push Iowa eggs, sees the matter, it could have been 100 percent. His concern is not the will of the people, but interstate commerce.

To the limited extent that the media has even discussed the King Amendment, it has done so through these animal welfare improvements. This perspective certainly makes sense, as billions of animals stand to see conditions devolve from an already dismal state of affairs to something unfathomable if the congressional King of industrial agriculture gets his way. But there’s more to it. Overlooked in the popular emphasis on animal welfare is the astonishing reach of this measure. Recall: The King Amendment applies to all state regulations bearing on agricultural production. As such, it has enormous implications not just for farm animals, but for all animals, including two-legged ones with an interest in public health, environmental safety, decent working conditions, and the democratic process.

A few examples suggest the remarkable power shift the King Amendment seeks to achieve. All 50 states require the sale of “fire safe” cigarettes (cigarettes with “lower ignition propensity”). The King Amendment, in carving the loophole for conventional (and cheaper) cigarettes to reach states with fire safe regulation, would effectively incentivize the production of non fire-safe cigarettes (tobacco, of course, being an agricultural product). Similarly, some states ban the use of chicken feed made with arsenic. But that provision too would be rendered moot if importation from other states was allowed. States that have pesticide restrictions could likewise see their hard-earned initiatives, many of them driven by concern for worker safety, emasculated by the King Amendment. California’s ongoing attempt to label foods made with GMOs would come to a screeching halt. “Phytosanitary” measures designed to prevent the importation of invasive species, food-safety provisions related to imported sea food, and myriad food inspection standards—all of which are heavily determined on the state level—would also find themselves on King’s chopping block. These examples only scratch the surface—hundreds of state laws are threatened.

These specific issues, in and of themselves, might seem like small potatoes. Don’t be fooled. What’s really at stake here is the power of the general public—a power that already hangs by a thread—to protect itself from corporate overreach. What Republicans such as Steve King risk in seeking this amendment is exposing the fact that the party’s ideological emphasis on state rights and individual liberty is, in fact, nothing more than a veil to hide its fealty to corporate autonomy—an autonomy that allows industry to pollute, abuse, and endanger in the name of trade.

The Farm Bill recently passed the House with the King Amendment intact. The Senate’s version of the bill has no version of the King Amendment. As the bill goes into committee, there is perhaps no better time to raise public awareness about the broader intention of the King Amendment. While we’re at it, it might also be an opportune moment to highlight the ugly truth that any Republican reference to the importance of making decisions on the local level should be understood, for now at least, as a bunch of hogwash.