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Holding Up Animal Protection Reforms, At What Price?

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The Humane Society of the United States neither gets nor expects strict adherence to its policy recommendations among all lawmakers -- in local government, in the states, or in Congress. On many of our issues, we are in a competitive environment -- with powerful interest groups, like the Farm Bureau or the NRA on the opposite side. We know that lawmakers of good conscience, especially when taking the temperature of voters, will fall on both sides of the fence on some of these issues.

There are, however, fundamental issues in the realm of animal protection that unite people of conscience. No hunter should accept wanton cruelty, and no responsible farmer appalling abuse. We can agree that certain practices are beyond the pale, and that the law must speak and we must stand together in a civil society.

Fox in field
John Harrison

Earlier this week, I wrote about the single-minded legislative doctrine of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who blocks all animal protection legislation if it has any price tag on it. In fact, he typically blocks animal protection bills if they have no price tag at all, although in fairness I note that he did accede to the Senate passing the animal crush video legislation that was approved unanimously on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, I reported that Sen. Coburn blocked five wildlife protection bills advanced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., and other Democratic and Republican lawmakers. They included measures to stop the cruel finning of sharks and to provide assistance to marine mammals injured by fishing lines and other human hazards. He also blocked a sixth bill -- the Truth in Fur Labeling Act.

This measure would simply require that fur products be labeled by species type and country of origin, regardless of value. It is not only supported by The HSUS, but also by major retailers such as Saks, Bloomingdale's, Gucci, and Macy's. Animal protection groups and many of the major corporate clothing sellers believe that consumers should have this information so they can make informed choices in the marketplace.

As with the other animal protection bills that came up this week, the vast majority of senators agreed that the fur labeling bill should be enacted. But Sen. Coburn wants to have it his way, saying that he has a "right" in the Senate to place a "hold" on all of these bills and to block this legislation.

Yes, it's true that under current Senate rules, one senator can bring legislation to a halt through the use of a "hold." But it's an undemocratic instrument, and it's being abused by Sen. Coburn. A single lawmaker out of 100 should not be able to continuously halt the policy-making work of the U.S. Congress.

Sen. Coburn wraps his extreme anti-animal welfare actions under the banner of fiscal restraint. But the Truth in Fur Labeling Act brings no new costs to the federal government or to private businesses -- they already have to affix labels to garments and to indicate the presence of fur in seven out of eight garments containing fur under a nearly six-decade-old labeling law -- and many of the other bills have no cost or very limited cost. The costs are so small that they would amount to a rounding error in the federal budget.

Is this the kind of society we want -- no standards or species conservation efforts whatsoever if there are any costs associated with them? The vast majority of Americans want reasonable rules to protect animals from abuse and extinction. And they want them at the state level and the federal level.

Sen. Coburn also invokes states' rights when he opposes animal protection legislation. But I remember in 2002 when The HSUS supported an anti-cockfighting citizen initiative in his home state of Oklahoma, he was silent on the matter. And in Congress, as we continue to spend tens of millions of federal dollars on cruel and ineffective lethal predator control, factory farming subsidies, or duplicative animal research, he has, to my knowledge, been entirely silent.

Animals have become a convenient whipping post for Sen. Coburn. However he wishes to rationalize his conduct, he is doing harm to animals and to the nation and the values we honor.

This post originally appeared on Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.