WASHINGTON -- House Republicans will include an extension of the so-called Monsanto Protection Act in the spending bill designed to avert a government shutdown, according to text of the legislation released Wednesday by House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.).
The Monsanto measure was originally enacted into law in March by being slipped into the previous spending resolution, which is now set to expire.
Since its quiet passage, the Monsanto Protection Act has become a target of intense opposition. Monsanto is a global seed and herbicide company that specializes in genetically modified crops. The law effectively prevents judges from placing injunctions on genetically modified seeds even if they are deemed unsafe. Monsanto has argued that it is unfair to single out the company in the nickname for the law, which is officially known as the Farmer Assurance Provision, when other major agribusiness players also support it.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) has waged a campaign against the measure and told HuffPost he plans to fight its reenactment.
"The proposed House continuing resolution includes an extension of the Monsanto Protection Act, a secret rider slipped into a must-pass spending bill earlier this year," Merkley said. "I will fight the House's efforts to extend this special interest loophole that nullifies court orders that are protecting farmers, the environment, and public health."
Colin O’Neil, a lobbyist for the Center for Food Safety, said in a statement, "It is extremely disappointing to see the damaging 'Monsanto Protection Act' policy rider extended in the House spending bill. Hundreds of thousands of Americans called their elected officials to voice their frustration and disappointment over the inclusion of the 'Monsanto Protection Act' this past spring. Its inclusion is a slap in the face to the American public and our justice system."
But Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, said the panel doesn't expect the Senate to balk at the inclusion of the Monsanto provision. "We have received no indication that this is a concern," she said. "It's a very traditional [continuing resolution] in every sense of the word. It simply continues existing law. Anything that was enacted in FY13 continues to be enacted."
The latest continuing resolution -- a Capitol Hill term for a bill to keep funding the government until a new budget is passed -- would last through Dec. 15, at which point a new CR or a more robust spending bill would be needed to avoid a shutdown.
Hing said the only significant changes the spending bill would make to existing law were included so that federal agencies could manipulate their budgets under sequestration "to continue government functions that would otherwise have catastrophic, unintended, or irreversible impacts on government programs." For example, agencies would be able to maintain current staffing levels on the border and prepare for bio or chemical weapons attacks.
Earlier this year, Merkley and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) took to the Senate floor to publicly oppose including the provision in any subsequent legislation.
"The Monsanto Protection Act refers to a policy rider the House slipped into the recently passed continuing resolution and sent over to the Senate. Because of the time-urgent consideration of this must-pass legislation -- necessary to avert a government shutdown -- this policy rider slipped through without examination or debate," Merkley noted on the floor in June.
"I wish to assure my friend that I think it would be inappropriate for that language to be adopted in a conference committee or otherwise adopted in a manner designed to bypass open debate in the relevant committees and this chamber," Stabenow told Merkley. "I will do my best to oppose any effort to add this kind of extension in the conference committee on this farm bill or to otherwise extend it without appropriate legislative examination."
A prior attempt to repeal the provision was opposed by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) blocked it on the floor.
In an interview with HuffPost at the time, Blunt made the case for the Monsanto Protection Act, arguing that it aimed to protect farmers who purchased seeds that were later deemed unsafe.
"I was raised -- my mom and dad were dairy farmers -- once you've made a decision to plant a crop for that year, you can't go back and undo that decision," he said. Requiring Monsanto or other seed companies to compensate farmers for lost income wasn't a viable strategy, he added, if the seeds had once been approved. "You can't sue them for selling a crop that the federal government said is OK to plant," he said.
The Monsanto Protection Act allows the secretary of agriculture to block a judicial injunction and allow planting of a strain of seeds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture called the provision redundant, Blunt said, in the sense that all it did "was repeat authority that the secretary in a hearing the other day, before the Agri[culture] Approp[riations] committee the other day, said he already had."
"And it didn't require the secretary to do anything that the secretary thought was the wrong thing to do," Blunt continued. "Which is one of the reasons I thought it was fine. I checked with USDA, or my staff did, and USDA said, 'You know, we don't think you need to do that because we can already do it.' The other view of that was, well, if you can already do it, then it makes everything come together, it's OK to restate authority they already had."
Earlier this year, a repeal petition announced by Merkley's office quickly garnered more than 100,000 signatures, including support beyond his Oregon constituents. A petition put out by Food Democracy Now, which organized a protest at the White House shortly after the measure became law in March, similarly picked up a quick 100,000 signatures. A petition pushed by CREDO Action, an online progressive group with some three million members, has more than a quarter million signatures.
"That's big for us, the fact that it went from zero to 100,000 just in 24 hours," Becky Bond, the head of CREDO, told HuffPost at the time. "People are really passionate about this issue. A lot of time people feel helpless with regard to corporate decisions ... The fact that there's someone in the Senate who's fighting for this is exciting to people, and they're eager to get their names on it."
This story has been updated with comment from a House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman.
Clarification: Language describing proposed changes to current law in the House spending bill has been clarified.