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Senate Remains at Impasse Over Food Safety Bill

Despite a flurry of rumors to the contrary, the food safety bill pending in the Senate does not appear to moving anywhere fast.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) “hotlined” the bipartisan bill yesterday, notifying senators that the legislation is ready to be considered under unanimous consent, a critical step forward, if no one objects to the guidelines for debate and amendments.

But Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) made it clear yesterday he still objects to the bill, citing $1.4 billion in additional spending and “burdensome new regulations.”

Coburn’s objection means Democrats would need to invoke cloture, which requires 60 votes, to limit debate on the floor.  Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the committee

that considered the legislation, told reporters last week he believes he

has more than 90 votes for the bill.

This may sound like easy math, but cloture takes a lot of time and the upper chamber has a limited number of work days remaining before the contentious midterm election cycle.

“Right now it’s an issue of time,” Regan Lachapelle, a spokeswoman for Reid, told Food Safety News.  ”It would be a much better situation if we can get [a unanimous consent] agreement.”

“Our hope is that we can move this bill this work period,” said Lachapelle, who blamed the time crunch on Republican “obstructionism” and a bevy of other legislative priorities–including defense authorization, tax cuts, and a continuing resolution.

Coburn, however, blames the impasse on Reid.       

“If the Majority Leader wants the bill to advance he should pay for it,” John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, told Food Safety News in an email. “Dr. Coburn isn’t responsible for the Majority Leader’s failure to write offsets into the base bill.”

“As Dr. Coburn said last week, the American people should question the

competence of any member of Congress who can’t find $1.4 billion of

waste in a $3.5 trillion budget to pay for this bill,” added Hart.

Coburn’s insistence that the authorizing language contain a cost offset has many in food policy circles scratching their heads.

Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition who has been working on the food safety bill extensively, called Coburn’s demand a “logical impossibility.”

“Like the vast majority of authorizing bills, [S.510] merely authorizes the possibility of later appropriations,” explained Hoefner.  ”The policies and programs authorized are then considered at a later time by the Appropriations Committees who determine whether or not to fund the authorizations. Some get funded, others do not.”

“It is not possible to “pay for” or “offset” a discretionary program in an authorization bill,” he added. “It is perfectly valid to debate the potential ultimate cost of passing a food safety bill.  It is not logical, however, to then morph into a debate about offsetting that potential cost.  That debate occurs in the context of a completely different piece of legislation, in this case the agricultural appropriations bill.”

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act has been stalled since November, when it was unanimously voted out of committee.

© Food Safety News
  • Ann Quinn, consumer

    Pardon the language, Helena, but this is all such a load
    of Congressional horse manure. The truth is the food/agriculture lobby has gotten to Congress not to move
    this bill, as this self-monitoring industry – that has done
    such a rotten job of improving food safety and preventing
    food contamination – doesn’t want the government to have
    increased powers over food production and food processing
    and food inspection methods. I’ve been watching this issue
    since the entirely preventable pet food recalls of 2007, and
    I am not surprised since it’s taken over ten years to argue
    about whether to put a calorie content label on a can of pet food.
    I’ve also written multiple letters to Senator Reid and have yet to receive anything but a canned patronizing response. What should be a no-brainer passage for the health and welfare of all U.S. consumers will remain in Congressional stall until it simply disappears from the agenda of the U.S. Congress, and that’s a real tragedy for U.S. food safety policy and every
    food consumer in this country. But guess what? Consumers out
    here know about the Congressional disappearing act and will
    vote to change that.

  • dangermaus

    Whatever one’s position on FSMA, it’s too bad these guys are so blatantly using parliamentary procedure to influence the upcoming election. Democrats are tacking immigrant and gay rights activist-friendly riders to the Defense bill to please their lobbyists, and Republicans are obstructing everything to prevent the Dems from delivering a victory to their base.
    I haven’t read anything that makes me think Coburn is responding to the merits of the law (my opinion of which I’ve already spoken on).

  • http://www.healthyfoodcoalition.org hhamil

    The statement, “Coburn’s objection means Democrats would need to invoke cloture, which requires 60 votes, to limit debate on the floor” is NOT correct.
    Coburn’s objection is to the use of the “unanimous consent” exception to the normal rules of the Senate. Thus, the supporters of S 510 would have to bring it up under normal rules allowing for full discussion and amendments. Cloture would ONLY be required IF a person or group attempts to filibuster S 510. Dr. Coburn has never indicated in any way that he will attempt a filibuster.
    Ferd Hoefner’s over simplification is quite misleading. He knows full well that authorization bills can contain funding mechanisms and, even, actual appropriations. He knows that S 510, itself, includes several partial funding mechanisms. If what he said were strictly true, why would the CBO make cost estimates of pure authorization bills?
    As printed by FSN in Helena Bottemiller’s 8-13-10 article announcing the Managers’ package, HELP Committee Chair Tom Harkin’s release said, this version, “Increases funding for FDA’s food safety activities through increased appropriations and targeted fees for food facility reinspection, food recalls, and the voluntary qualified importer program.”
    S 510 clearly authorizes increases in personnel at field staff so that the FDA will have the people needed to do the additional work required (not just authorized) by S 510. By 2015, field staff is to increase to 5000 people from less than 4000. In addition, the FDA is authorized to hire outside inspectors. Obviously, that costs money and must be paid for by some source; so, Hoefner is incorrect in calling Coburn’s demand a “logical impossibility.”
    However, this distracts us from what is much more important–the CBO’s estimate cost of “unfunded mandates.” These are found under “Intergovernmental (i.e., state, local & tribal governments) and Private Sector Impact.” on pp. 8-9 at http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/117xx/doc11794/s510.pdf.
    All the CBO says about the cost to the private sector is the not very helpful statement that the cost “would probably exceed the threshold” adjusted for inflation from the $141 million of 2010.
    Incredibly, the CBO estimates the S 510 cost for “other public sector entities…would fall WELL BELOW [my emphasis] the intergovernmental threshold ($70 million in 2010, adjusted annually for inflation)”! This is despite the fact that ALL subsection (d) Enforcement of the new Sec. 419 Standards for Produce Safety says, “The Secretary may coordinate with the Secretary of Agriculture and, as appropriate, shall contract and coordinate with the agency or department designated by the Governor of each State to perform activities to ensure compliance with this section.”
    Where is the funding for enforcement of the additional “science-based minimum standards for the safe production and harvesting…fruits and vegetables…that are raw agricultural commodities”? There are 1,500,000+ farms in the US and hundreds of thousands of them grow and sell fruits or vegetables.
    The CBO has only estimated the tip of the iceberg. The ultimate financial cost will be much higher. As Bill Marler recently wrote, “Coburn has a point. Passing legislation without having the means to pay for it makes no sense at all.” (http://www.marlerblog.com/lawyer-oped/i-am-not-becoming-a-republican—i-hope/).
    Is it really a good idea to pass additional laws that are only enforced on a hit or miss basis? I don’t think so.

  • http://www.healthyfoodcoalition.org Harry Hamil

    The statement, “Coburn’s objection means Democrats would need to invoke cloture, which requires 60 votes, to limit debate on the floor” is NOT correct.
    Coburn’s objection is to the use of the “unanimous consent” exception to the normal rules of the Senate. Thus, the supporters of S 510 would have to bring it up under normal rules allowing for full discussion and amendments. Cloture would ONLY be required IF a person or group attempts to filibuster S 510. Dr. Coburn has never indicated in any way that he will attempt a filibuster.
    Ferd Hoefner’s over simplification is quite misleading. He knows full well that authorization bills can contain funding mechanisms and, even, actual appropriations. He knows that S 510, itself, includes several partial funding mechanisms. If what he said were strictly true, why would the CBO make cost estimates of pure authorization bills?
    As printed by FSN in Helena Bottemiller’s 8-13-10 article announcing the Managers’ package, HELP Committee Chair Tom Harkin’s release said, this version, “Increases funding for FDA’s food safety activities through increased appropriations and targeted fees for food facility reinspection, food recalls, and the voluntary qualified importer program.”
    S 510 clearly authorizes increases in personnel at field staff so that the FDA will have the people needed to do the additional work required (not just authorized) by S 510. By 2015, field staff is to increase to 5000 people from less than 4000. In addition, the FDA is authorized to hire outside inspectors. Obviously, that costs money and must be paid for by some source; so, Hoefner is incorrect in calling Coburn’s demand a “logical impossibility.”
    However, this distracts us from what is much more important–the CBO’s estimate cost of “unfunded mandates.” These are found under “Intergovernmental (i.e., state, local & tribal governments) and Private Sector Impact.” on pp. 8-9 at http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/117xx/doc11794/s510.pdf.
    All the CBO says about the cost to the private sector is the not very helpful statement that the cost “would probably exceed the threshold” adjusted for inflation from the $141 million of 2010.
    Incredibly, the CBO estimates the S 510 cost for “other public sector entities…would fall WELL BELOW [my emphasis] the intergovernmental threshold ($70 million in 2010, adjusted annually for inflation)”! This is despite the fact that ALL subsection (d) Enforcement of the new Sec. 419 Standards for Produce Safety says, “The Secretary may coordinate with the Secretary of Agriculture and, as appropriate, shall contract and coordinate with the agency or department designated by the Governor of each State to perform activities to ensure compliance with this section.”
    Where is the funding for enforcement of the additional “science-based minimum standards for the safe production and harvesting…fruits and vegetables…that are raw agricultural commodities”? There are 1,500,000+ farms in the US and hundreds of thousands of them grow and sell fruits or vegetables.
    The CBO has only estimated the tip of the iceberg. The ultimate financial cost will be much higher. As Bill Marler recently wrote, “Coburn has a point. Passing legislation without having the means to pay for it makes no sense at all.” (http://www.marlerblog.com/lawyer-oped/i-am-not-becoming-a-republican—i-hope/).
    Is it really a good idea to pass additional laws that are only enforced on a hit or miss basis? I don’t think so.

  • Susan

    What I heard Senator Tom Coburn, M.D., say in the video clip was that S-510 does not fix the problem!
    He asked: “Why has it taken ten years for the FDA to give us an egg safety standard. The egg safety standard came out 10 days AFTER the salmonella infection. The real problem is not fixed because the organization, which is to keep the food safe, has not done it’s job. And the problem with S-510, in addition to it not being paid for is it does not address the real problem.”
    He went on to say: “The public should know that if you go to the grocery store and buy a pepperoni pizza, the FDA is required to do the food safety. But, if you buy a cheese pizza, it’s the USDA. How does that make any sense to anybody in America?”
    “And what happened in the farms in Iowa because of eggs, is the USDA knew there was a problem, but didn’t tell the US FDA, because the FDA is only responsible for the egg once it gets out of the chicken. After the egg came out of the chicken and was shipped, was then it became the responsibility of the FDA. This bill does not address any of those problems…
    we now have a bill that is going to cost the American public $1.5 billion over the next five years, that doesn’t that fix the real problem. And, the real problem is the lack of focus of the agencies to do their job. And it does not eliminate the crossover and lack of consistency…
    If you buy red meat in the store, you only have to trust one agency. But if you buy an egg, you have to trust two. If you buy salad or lettuce , you have to trust two. They are not talking to one another, and THERE IS NOTHING IN THIS BILL THAT MAKES THEM DO THAT. What we have done is created a lot of new regulations, with a lot of money, without solving the real problem. And, the only way we get to the real problem is to have the FDA, up here (in the Senate) once a week for the next four weeks, and the USDA, once a week for the next four weeks, talking about these critical crossover issues.”
    In the bill it states: “ ‘Nothing in this act or an amendment made by this act, shall be construed to alter the jurisdiction between of the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services.’ “ In other words, there is a prohibition to alter the responsibilities, so we may have safe food. In other words, to hold one agency accountable, instead of two, so one can agency can point the finger at the other. In the House hearing today, the USDA knew their was a problem, but the FDA didn’t know there was a problem, until somebody got sick.”
    Senate bill create a high level of additional regulation, a high level of various inspections –Dr. Coburn said he is not opposed to the high level of various inspections because he consumes the same food as everyone else and does not want to get sick.
    He says: “We can’t continue to pass bills that pile on regulations, that cost the American people $1.5 billion dollars, that DON’T FIX THE REAL PROBLEM..This bill is NOT HOLDING ANYBODY ACCOUNTABLE.”
    In the clip I heard, nothing was said that this bill needs to move to the floor as is. I heard that this bill does NOT ADDRESS THE PROBLEM OF FOOD SAFETY.

  • Michael Bulger

    So, you’re saying that egg graders are now supposed to report to the FDA on the state of the feed mill that they never deal with, and that will fix the whole problem?
    And this will include recall authority and the inspection of foreign facilities? And school allergies? And focus on high-risk, high-volume, facilities with poor compliance histories?
    Come off it. Not even close, Coburn.