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Boehner vs. Barton on Food Safety

By David Waldman |

This afternoon on the House floor, during debate on H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, we witnessed both a committee turf battle (Agriculture vs. Energy & Commerce), and crossed leadership wires on the Republican side.

Check it out. First up, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH-08), complaining about the last minute changes, and invoking the standard "nobody's read the bill" gripe:

Rep. Boehner: Mr. Speaker, my colleagues, here we go again. This is a major piece of legislation that was introduced last night at the Rules Committee, about 12:15. Then, about 9:36 this morning, we saw anotherversion of this bill introduced to replace the first version. And then at 10:50 this morning, we see a thirdversion of this same bill!

Now, this may be a great bill. I have no idea. But the fact is, is that introducing three different versions of the bill, yet, this day, and then bringing it to the floor some four hours later begins to ask the question, did anybody read the bill?

Now, I think the chairman, the ranking member, and the chairman of the subcommittee probably did read the bill and understand what's in it. But how about the other 431 of us who serve in this House, who are expected to vote on this?

And my second complaint about this bill is the fact that we're considering it here in the House under a procedure where there's a whopping 40 minutes of debate. Twenty minutes on each side. Forty minutes, and no amendments allowed to be offered. We've got this major food safety bill here on the floor, and nobody gets to offer an amendment, nobody gets to have a debate about it, and nobody, clearly, has much of an idea of what's in the bill.

Now, as a longtime member of the House Ag. committee, I understand that we've got the safest food supply in the world. It's probably not perfect. But it is the safest food supply in the world. And we can do better. But to legislate in this manner, under these conditions, without Members having a clue about what's in the bill is not, in my view, in the best interests of the House.

But he's rebutted by the Republican floor manager for the bill, Energy & Commerce Committee Ranking Member Joe Barton (R-TX-06)

Rep. Barton: What our Minority Leader said just a minute ago is absolutely true, in the technical sense -- about different versions of the bill being introduced at different times. But that's not all of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say in his radio commentary.

Those different versions have been introduced in the last day because of changes that I have asked for and other Republican Members have asked for to improve the bill at the request of Congressman Lucas and his staff on the Agriculture Committee. We have been improving the bill to make it more supportive of agriculture.


All of these changes were made at the suggestion of Congressman Lucas and his staff, working through myself and my staff, through Mr. Waxman and Mr. Dingell's staff.

So was it a fight about procedure? Was Boehner legitimately angry that the bill was being considered under suspension of the rules? That was the reason for the 40 minute time limit on debate and no amendments being allowed, but the trade-off is that bills require a 2/3 vote to pass that way. (And by the way, why would the bill have been in the Rules Committee last night, as Boehner said, anyway? If it's on the floor under suspension of the rules, the Rules Committee doesn't deal with it.) Or was this a jurisdictional fight, with Agriculture Committee members angry that they didn't have more control over the process, and upset with the bill's giving the Food and Drug Administraion power to regulate -- gasp! -- foods?

Well, the "Congressman Lucas" that Barton referred to in his speech was Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK-03), the Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Committee. And he seemed just fine with things.

So what has this lack of understanding/turf fight cost us?

Well, the final vote was 280-150, with 23 Dems voting no, 50 Republicans voting yes, 127 no.

Bills brought to the floor under suspension of the rules require a 2/3 vote to pass. That's 2/3 of those present and voting. Four hundred thirty votes were cast. Two-thirds of 430 is 287 (286.6, really). So the cost was this: the Food Safety Enhancement Act was defeated.

It can come back later under regular order (meaning under a rule) and be passed by majority vote. But for today, because of this turf fight, it'll have to wait. It'll be interesting to see how many of the 23 Democratic votes against the bill were from Agriculture Committee members, how many from regular Blue Dog defectors, and where those two groups intersect.

And as I finish up, here comes the answer:

Dems voting no:

Markey (CO) 

Mixed bag! Ag. committee members listed above include: Marshall, Kagan, Massa, Markey (CO), Kratovil, Childers and Minnick.

On the flip side, Ranking Member Lucas brought with him the vote of only one (of a total of 18) of his fellow Republicans on Ag.: Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE-01).



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