Washington Insider -- Friday

Ag Gag Law Falls in Idaho

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

September Promises to be a Legislative Challenge for Congress

The Senate this week followed the House into the summer recess, postponing work on a considerable stack of unfinished business until at least September, but more likely on into the fall. Neither chamber has passed even one of the 12 annual appropriations bills and hope is fading quickly that any –– except, perhaps, defense and legislative branch spending –– will be approved before the end of the fiscal year.

The House will be session for only 11 legislative days in September during which members will be asked to consider a joint resolution to disapprove the nuclear deal the United States has negotiated with Iran, raise the federal debt ceiling to prevent the government from defaulting, and pass either a continuing resolution or an omnibus appropriations bill to avoid a government shutdown beginning Oct. 1, among other actions.

Republicans remain determined to demonstrate that they can govern, now that they hold majorities in both the House and Senate. Next month will provide an excellent opportunity for them show what they can do.


Senate Panel Still Seeking to Overturn Executive Order for Power Plants

Senate Environment and Public Work Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., hoped earlier this week to approve a bill that would overturn President Obama's climate rule for power plants, but was thwarted when committee Democrats walked out of markup session, thus denying Republicans the quorum they needed to pass the measure. The reason for the walk out was a Clean Water Act provision regarding pesticide applications that had no connection to the power plant bill.

That proposal, introduced by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., would roll back the Clean Power Plan that the administration announced Aug. 3. The goal of the plan, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is to reduce carbon pollution from power plants and strengthen "the fast-growing trend toward cleaner and lower-polluting American energy." Many in Congress view the plan as another battle in an alleged ongoing war on coal.

However, overturning the plan appears unlikely to result in power plants returning to coal. According to a recent op-ed article in Bloomberg News, more than 50 percent of U.S. electric power came from coal in 2005, but today it is down below 40 percent, and the Clean Power Plan projects a decline to 27 percent by 2030. The reasons for the decline appears to have less to do with EPA rules and more to do with economics and the public's desire for cleaner air.

Thus while the legislation awaiting approval by the Environment and Public Works Committee may please constituents in coal-producing states, it appears unlikely to affect the nation's turn away from coal.


Washington Insider: Ag Gag Law Falls in Idaho

One of the quickest ways to upset most U.S. livestock producers is to discuss undercover efforts to video livestock or dairy operations. Producers argue that these violate their privacy and are created to "reveal" animal mistreatment. So, they have pushed their state legislatures to pass "privacy" laws to protect them.

Currently, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana and Utah prohibit falsifying employment applications and secretly taking audio or video recordings at agricultural facilities. North Carolina in June enacted a law that expands to all businesses, not just agriculture, and has civil penalties, as opposed to criminal, like the other state statutes.

However, the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho recently considered that state's law and ruled that it violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Experts say this is the first time a court has ruled on the issue, and that it likely will have much broader consequences.

"This is just the first domino to fall," Justin Marceau, lead attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund and professor at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law told the press this week. "And as far as other states that already have these laws, we'll be filing suit there very soon."

Leslie Brueckner, a senior attorney at Public Justice who worked on the case against the Idaho law, said the ruling creates a blueprint for other courts to follow when considering state laws written to shut down speech criticizing the agriculture industry. "We're hoping this win can be used to strike down 'ag-gag' laws in other states," Brueckner said.

Marceau said the coalition of animal rights and consumer advocacy groups that filed suit in Idaho expects to prevail in its ongoing case against Utah's similar law. In each case, the ALDF is joined by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Center for Food Safety.

The Idaho law was enacted in 2014 and called "Interference with Agricultural Production." It contained penalties of up to one year in prison and $5,000 in fines. The state argued that the law is intended to protect private property and the privacy of agricultural facility owners, but Judge B. Lynn Winmill granted the plaintiff's motion for summary judgement.

"The effect of the statute will be to suppress speech by undercover investigators and whistleblowers concerning topics of great public importance: the safety of the public food supply, the safety of agricultural workers, the treatment and health of farm animals, and the impact of business activities on the environment," Winmill said in the decision.

In an additional wrinkle, the court also found that the Idaho law was crafted by state legislators motivated by animus toward animal welfare groups such as Mercy for Animals that had released an earlier video of workers at an Idaho dairy farm abusing cows. The resulting attention led the trade group Idaho Dairymen's Association to craft a bill, according to the court order.

The state has not yet decided if it will appeal the decision, which would send the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

So, while livestock producers and dairymen feel deeply violated by guerilla greens who take jobs on their farms or dairies in order to "expose" them, experts are widely suggesting that it will be difficult to craft a legal approach to stop such efforts that will pass muster in the courts. In addition, there seems to be no shortage of support for efforts to find fault with factory farms and dairies and perceptions of the ways animals are treated.

It may be that the best way to deal with such threats is more careful and intensive training and supervision to prevent any hint of cruelty across the industry. Such efforts likely will be costly, of course, but producers need to understand that they are near the front lines of a severe cultural fight and that careful prevention may be their best approach, Washington Insider believes.

Want to keep up with events in Washington and elsewhere throughout the day? See DTN Top Stories, our frequently updated summary of news developments of interest to producers. You can find DTN Top Stories in DTN Ag News, which is on the Main Menu on classic DTN products and on the News and Analysis Menu of DTN's Professional and Producer products. DTN Top Stories is also on the home page and news home page of online.dtn.com. Subscribers of MyDTN.com should check out the U.S. Ag Policy, U.S. Farm Bill and DTN Ag News sections on their News Homepage.

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