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With Climate Change and Food Safety, Waxman's Got His Hands Full

June 18, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

(This post by Isabelle Cutting, OpenCongress Research Assistant)

In January, Rep. Henry Waxman [D, CA-30] replaced the more moderate Rep. John Dingell [D, MI-15] as the Chairman for the Energy and Commerce Committee by a secret vote of 137-122 held amongst House Democrats.

The motivation was to have a progressive at the helm of the committee that would hold jurisdiction over some of the most important legislation that would be coming up in the 111th Congress. Indeed, as Chairman, Rep. Waxman has been the leading force behind bills such as the recently enacted, Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act and the up and coming American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. He has also co-sponsored the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, which as of yesterday has again seen action in Congress.

Now that Waxman is in charge of pushing these latter two pieces of legislation (both are expected to be voted upon in June and August respectively), he’s meeting opposition from rural, moderate Democrats – likely the same crowd that voted against him taking over the committee in January.

The Food Safety bill, nevertheless, passed through its final committee action yesterday, June 17th. It comes as a response to the recent food crises and is a product of what Rep. Frank Pallone identifies as 11 years of proposed food safety bills.

The bill broadly calls for greater FDA regulatory powers over the national food supply and food providers. Such extensions of authority include quarantine, recall, and search without a warrant capabilities. This legislation also seeks to establish a national food tracing system requiring any and all producers, manufacturers, processors, transporters, and holders must maintain the full pedigree of the origin and distribution history of their food. Other potentially debilitating hurdles presented by this bill are the registration requirements such as a $500 fee.

Waxman’s Food Safety bill is built largely off of the previously proposed Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act of 2009, but focuses solely on food, while the other would also seek to address drug and cosmetic safety. It is also an “enhancement” to previously proposed food safety bills as it seeks to up tracing and record keeping requirements, punishments to relevant violations, and extends Federal jurisdiction over any violation of the bill to an extraterritorial scope.

Waxman opened Wednesday’s full House Energy and Commerce committee session by applauding the notable bipartisan consensus behind the bill and support given by consumer and public interest groups. However major agricultural and agribusiness organizations have voiced strong opposition to several provisions in the bill. On June 15th, 20 such groups sent the House Energy a letter outlining their concerns:

As drafted, this legislation would give the Food and Drug Administration broad new powers to regulate the entire spectrum of the agricultural and food system — from production agriculture to the final retail establishment — in many cases without appropriate thresholds or accountability.

Some of their concerns were met as the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved an amendment to exempt livestock and poultry farms from much of the expanded FDA authority, namely the on-farm inspections, quarantine capabilities, and creating a new tracing system. Such provisions would indeed be redundant as the USDA already has the power to quarantine animals upon a state’s request and has an identification and tracing system already in place. These same provisions, however, remain in effect for the grain side of diversified livestock and grain operations.

Lingering concerns relate to the FDA’s authority to suspend a facility’s registration, the facility-specific product-safety standards, user fees, and standards for raw commodities.

Although dominant, discourse surrounding this bill is not all critical. Here is Jill Richardson’s take on it at La Vid Locavore along with a positive note from the Consumers Union.

The bill is expected to be voted on by the House in August and its companion bill, S.1269, was introduced in the Senate on Tuesday. Find the most recent markup of H.R.2759 here.

Also owing to Rep. Waxman is the American Clean Energy And Security Act of 2009, which appears to be hung up over concerns from farm-state Democrats and conservative Blue Dog Democrats. This bill is also expected to be on the House floor in the near future, but key issues still need to be resolved.

HAI reports:

Peterson met yesterday afternoon with the bill’s chief architect, Congressman Henry Waxman (D-California) and electric utility officials to try to iron out an agreement on changes to the bill.

One sticking point is the distribution of pollution allowances, which companies would buy and sell to meet a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. According to Peterson, rural electric cooperatives and other Midwestern electric utilities would not receive enough allowances compared with utilities in coastal states.

The bill as presently written would give pollution allowances to local electric distribution companies, with half based on their emissions and half based on their electricity sales. Rural electric cooperatives argue that the formula is unfair to coal-fired utilities that have relatively high emissions per unit of energy.

In anticipation of this here are some sites of discussion on the Waxman-Markey Bill:

  • Related to issues in the bill, the select committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming held a hearing this morning entitled “Global Warming’s Growing Concerns: Impacts on Agriculture and Forestry”.
  • Progression of comments on Open Left by Chris Bowers here and here
  • Optimistic words from Waxman, himself on Politico
  • Not so optimistic words from rural farm-states Democrats on Yglesias and FT
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