The House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday passed the Meat and Poultry Special Investigator Act of 2022 by a 27-21 vote.

The original bill, introduced in the House by Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D, VA-7) and cosponsored only by Reps. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R, IA-2), Katie Porter (D, CA-45), and Cynthia Axne (D, IA-3), would create an Office of the Special Investigator for Competition Matters within USDA, headed by a political appointee from the Secretary of Agriculture, with authority to investigate Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA) violations. This single position would be granted authority to bring civil action at will against a meat or poultry processor for PSA violations. It also charges this office with liaising with the Department of Homeland Security on cybersecurity issues.

The committee began marking up the bill – a process where committee members can offer amendments with a final vote to pass the bill occurring at the end of the markup – on Tuesday, but broke for recess until all members of the committee were in attendance to vote on a contested amendment.

Rep. David Rouzer (R, NC-7) offered an amendment to the bill that would require USDA to conduct an economic analysis of forthcoming Packers and Stockyards Act regulations. The amendment would have required USDA to publish the results at least 90 days before any new proposed rules are published. The amendment was vigorously debated, with Republicans supporting the amendment and Rep. Spanberger opposing.  Rep. Rouzer requested a recorded vote on Tuesday, after which Chairman David Scott (D, GA-13) postponed the vote on the amendment until Wednesday when all Democrats on the committee could be present.

The Rouzer amendment was voted down strictly along party lines, by a vote of 25-22. Rep. Jim Costa (D, CA-16) did not vote.

Two other amendments received votes in Tuesday’s session. Rep. Costa offered an amendment to change the position from a political appointee to a career employee within USDA. Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D, CA-20) offered an amendment to require the special investigator to notify the Attorney General of any suits brought in federal courts and to coordinate with the USDA’s Packers and Stockyards Division (PSD) on any administrative actions taken against a potential violator. Both amendments passed.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D, OH-9) was added as a member of the committee on Tuesday, while Rep. Julia Letlow (R, LA-5) rotated off the committee and onto the Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R, MN-1) recently passed away and has not been replaced on the committee. Those changes resulted in an overall membership advantage on the committee for Democrats of 26-22.

The committee then voted on Wednesday to report the bill out of committee and to the House by a vote of 27-21, with one Republican, Dusty Johnson (R, SD-AL), voting in favor of the bill, and Rep. Jim Costa not voting.

“Regrettably, I have to express my strong opposition to [this bill],” Ranking Member Rep. GT Thompson (R, PA-15) said during the markup. “Unfortunately I correctly predicted that our recent packer hearing was an exercise in political theatrics designed to support unvetted and controversial bills like this one. Based on my experience, additional layers of bureaucracy don’t solve problems. If anything, they create new problems. In this case, it’s hard to even tell what alleged problem this legislation is aiming to solve.”

“Maybe it’s trying to address rising food prices? If so, it seems almost laughable that an unfunded office with duplicative authorities is going to solve that problem by filing lawsuits against processors at the whims of the Secretary [of Agriculture],” Rep. Thompson continued. “What about a supposed lack of enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act? If so, USDA already has an entire Packers and Stockyards Division charged with enforcing the act. The division already consists of teams of seasoned attorneys, market specialists, and auditors, and has the option to pursue administrative enforcement through USDA’s Office of General Counsel before an administrative law judge or through the Department of Justice in federal court. Perhaps a lack of funding for enforcement is the problem? If so, despite the department’s own budget request for more funding and full time employees, this bill provides nothing.”

“One thing is for certain,” Rep. Thompson concluded. “The legislation is not in response to widespread industry support. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation, and the North American Meat Institute are all in opposition.”

“USDA already has a longstanding group of seasoned lawyers under current law charged with enforcing the PSA, with the authority to investigate practices and, if needed, bring administrative action to force compliance,” Rep. Rick Allen (R, GA-12) said of the bill. “This bill would duplicate these enforcement functions already in place at USDA, adding more bloat and cost to the federal bureaucracy.”

“Rather than pursue this duplicative, costly, and severely misguided bill, Congress should seek to fulfill the President’s FY2023 budget request for oversight and enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act,” Rep. Allen concluded. “Simply, enforce the laws on the books.”

Reps. Austin Scott (R, GA-8), Trent Kelly (R, MS-1), Kat Cammack (R, FL-3), and Rick Crawford (R, AR-1) joined Ranking Member Thompson, Rep. Allen, and Rep. Rouzer in voicing on the record strong opposition to the legislation.

The Senate has not considered the bill in committee. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) is the lead sponsor of the companion bill in the Senate.

Both chambers would need to pass the bill in committee and on the floor, with the Senate requiring 60 votes for passage on the floor, before the bill could be sent to the President’s desk.

The Meat and Poultry Special Investigator Act (H.R. 7606) can be found here.

 

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