I’ve long been a vocal opponent of the erosion of states’ rights going on in this country. The power of the federal government just seems to be growing exponentially, and I don’t see the effects of such growth as being good.
In the House version of the 2012 farm bill, which is currently under discussion, an amendment was passed this week that would allow the federal government to assert control over setting standards for animal agriculture. The amendment would block a state from imposing its own standards for agriculture products on producers from other states.
At first blush, this is kind of exciting, as it could render moot California Proposition 2, which passed the California electorate in November 2008 and stipulates rules of confinement for certain farm animals. Proposition 2 shook animal agriculture to its core because it underscored that ag’s very existence could be regulated or threatened, not based on science, or even sound political debate, but by means of a successful creative public relation campaign where success was driven largely by emotion and the amount of cash put toward the effort.
What the House amendment seeks to do, according to Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who introduced it, is to avoid a hodge-podge of state laws that could, in effect, end up infringing on the Commerce Clause power of Congress. Under that constitutional provision, Congress alone has jurisdiction over interstate commerce.
Ironically, the Humane Society of the U.S., which has been lobbying for national standards before this, opposes this farm bill amendment because it threatens the group’s strategy of picking off states one by one. HSUS likes to bring its superior resources to bear in an individual state with ballot initiative provisions and overwhelm agriculture in emotional public votes.
It seems unlikely that the ballot initiative process, which is a favored tool of activists at the state level, will be corrected. And it could be argued that the aim of the House amendment is actually a legitimate application in protecting the Commerce Clause power of Congress. Still, it’s a little scary for ag interests to think about lining up in support of yet another increase in influence by the federal government.
Intuitively, agricultural interests have more opportunity to influence positive change at the state level as long as animal welfare activists are relegated to working through the legislative process. But ag interests are unable to compete effectively against activists when the legislative process is circumvented by the use of ballot initiatives that put the measures to emotional public votes.
In the end, Proposition 2 destroyed California’s poultry industry, raised prices for consumers, and did little or nothing to improve animal welfare. But California had the right to make such a big mistake. Agricultural states hated California’s overreach, but they may find that the federal government is no better at sorting out these things than uninformed voters in California.
The reality is the industry has been in the crosshairs for quite some time; ultimately, the ballot initiative process is a losing proposition for agriculture because the battle comes down to which side has the dollars, a hand that activists will always win.
That HSUS is against the amendment is a factor over which agriculture can perhaps take comfort, but some worry that the cure under consideration in Congress could be more dangerous than the problem.
The Commerce Clause is important and necessary, but it has also been used to quash any attempt to thwart the growth in the power of the federal government. This should make for some interesting bedfellows, as one wonders whether politicians will be able to separate the legitimate and correct use of the Commerce Clause from the overreaching application and standard applied in recent judgments.