Column: Farm bill is no place for poison pills
By SUSAN HARLEY, Public Citizen
WASHINGTON — Congress must approve a farm bill. Our nation’s farmers and millions of food-stamp recipients, as well as American consumers, are depending on the leadership of U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan to make that happen.
As chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Stabenow has shown extraordinary skill in trying to bring together two drastically different versions of the House and Senate farm bills. Farm bill negotiators are expected to unveil a compromise bill.
But it is crucial that in trying to reach a compromise, Sen. Stabenow does not agree to some very unsavory provisions. Two of these “poison pills” would jeopardize the public’s right to critical information. The other provision threatens the ability of federal scientists to protect public health, safety and the environment.
The House-passed farm bill would bar the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from disclosing basic location and contact information about agricultural and livestock operations. This language is unnecessary because federal law already includes strong protections for personal privacy, and the provision is so broad that it mixes information about corporate farms with small farm operations. This provision would withhold crucial information about huge livestock operations and their public health impacts from families who share waterways with them.
The House bill also would impose on all federal agencies additional restrictions on the disclosure of information about farm operations, land and practices. The restrictions would impede legitimate exchange of information between state, federal and local governments, and even prevent accurate land value assessments.
As the transparency coalition OpenTheGovernment.org points out, “The Freedom of Information Act is built on the premise that the public has a right to government records, particularly if there is a public interest in the information. The House’s language eviscerates the law’s promise of transparency by completely cutting off access to information that people might need to protect the health and safety of their family and the broader community.”
A third particularly dangerous poison pill in the House-passed bill is a classic attempt to block public protections through “paralysis by analysis.” Federal agencies already have in place long established methods for using science, but this provision creates a set of procedural obstacles for the way agencies use any type of scientific data – hurdles so high that it would be nearly impossible for any agency to fulfill them. An industry representative could contend that the agency did not evaluate all the studies on an issue (including half-baked studies funded by the corporations themselves) or conduct sufficient peer review, or could charge that the science the agency used was “compromised” in some way. This would open agencies up to lawsuits in which judges would be determining standards for our workplaces, consumer products, toxic chemicals, food, drugs and even our financial regulations, rather than agency experts who make policies and rules based on the laws passed by Congress.
Provisions threatening our right to know, our public health and safety, and even our financial security have no place in the farm bill.
Susan Harley, J.D. is Deputy Director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. Public Citizen is a member of the OpenTheGovernment.org coalition.