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Breaking: Procedural Error in Senate Could Kill Food Safety Bill, S.510 Enters Congressional Twilight Zone

Submitted by Food Democracy Now on December 1, 2010 - 4:17am

Just when you thought it couldn't get any weirder in Congress, the Senate throws food safety and family farm advocates for a loop. Yesterday morning, Tuesday Nov. 30th, the Senate passed the Food Safety Modernization Act AKA S.510 by a wide bipartisan margin vote - 73 to 25.

After two years of contentious debate on the Internet, in Congress and the food movement, it finally looked like a food safety bill that gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandatory recall authority and increased inspection powers of large-scale, high-risk facilities that also included hard-won provisions to protect small-scale local farm producers was about to become law.

All that had to happen was the bill needed to be walked to the House, where it was supposed to be immediately reconciled by House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and then signed by President Obama. Of course, Big Ag and Western produce growers were hoping that their major objections to the Tester/Manager's amendments, which offered protections for family farmers and the local food movement and a last minute tantrum could stymie these provisions during the final stages of the process. At the same time, a number of local and organic farmers and a contingent of the Tea Party were hoping to kill the food safety bill outright.

Ironically, it appears that the U.S. Senate's sloppy legal work may have sunk the bill all on its own. Late last night, just about the time locavore's were getting ready to put on their organic pajamas and Food Democracy Now! was sorting through its latest round of hate mail from Tea Party fanatics, a story from the eminent Roll Call, "The Newspaper of Capitol Hill Since 1955" announced the latest twist with the bombshell headline: "House May Block Food Safety Bill Over Senate Error".

According to Roll Call's John Stanton:

"A food safety bill that has burned up precious days of the Senate’s lame-duck session appears headed back to the chamber because Democrats violated a constitutional provision requiring that tax provisions originate in the House."

For those not familiar with the polite etiquette of Congress, this essentially means that someone on the Senate side screwed the pooch and failed to catch a glaring minor detail about separation of powers between the House and Senate.

As one senior Hill staffer reached after midnight put it, "What the fuck?" And noted this was not the first time this had happened.

I know folks; I could not make this stuff up.

The obvious dilemma here has shown that what should have been a rare Democratic legislative victory during the lame duck session could now be turned into a possible route and will likely lead House Democrats to use a rare procedure known as "blue-slipping" to block the bill. Which led food safety guru Bill Marler to write, "Did you ever get the feeling that grown-ups are not running our government?"

Apparently provisions in the Section 107 of the Senate bill called for a separate fee structure that varied from the House's versions of the bill which mandated a $500 "facility registration fee".

Obviously we are getting down into the weeds of Congressional protocol here, but Mr. Marler offers an elegant solution:

"So, if the House is already charging $500 per year, per facility, why can not the House and Senate in conference agree that the $500 fee, (that S. 510 did not have in the first place) would replace S. 510 Sec. 107?

It is late and I simply do not know the answer.  And, I have not even talked about issues that the House may well have over the Tester/Hagen Amendment which at this point the House needs to leave alone."

In an effort to keep a sense of humor about this important and controversial bill, late last night Food Democracy Now! turned to Fair Food Fight for some genius comic levity. Major hat tip to El Dragon for continued sense of humor in the face of such dark possibilities of reforming America's food system. Food safety facepalm indeed.

For additional commentary, check out Tom Philpott's latest insights on the bill's implications over at Grist and please read Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser's New York Times editorial, "A Stale Food Fight" if you have not yet had a chance.

Once again, Food Democracy Now! will continue to keep you up to date on the latest updates facing the food safety bill as they come in.

Despite the most recent twist of fate, which now casts the bill into a Congressional Twilight Zone, I stand by my statement made earlier in the day, when it appeared the Senate still had their house in order:

"The passage of the food safety bill, which grants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandatory recall authority and includes provisions that protect family farmers engaged in direct sales of local foods is an historic victory for family farmers and the local food movement, said Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now!.  "In overcoming the backlash of agricultural giants who desperately fought to kill these protections for family farmers, the sustainable agricultural movement has shown that it is a political force to be reckoned with."

No matter what the outcome tomorrow, and we hope it's positive, winning the fight on the Tester amendment was the food movement's biggest victory since Kathleen Merrigan was appointed Deputy Secretary at the USDA. Congratulations to NSAC, OFRF, WORC and the 12,000 Food Democracy Now! members who helped make it happen.

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