The scene, often repeated these bitterly political days, was straight out of Alice in Wonderland.
On March 3, U.S. senator after U.S. senator rose to support the reopening of America to live cattle imports from Canada.
They did so with looking-glass facts; facts clearly upside down and perfectly backward.
Disapproval. What made the debate of Sen. Kent Conrad’s bipartisan “resolution of disapproval” of USDA’s March 7 reopening of the 49th parallel to Canadian cattle so remarkable was that just a day earlier, on March 2, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Cebull issued a scathing, fact-packed rebuke of USDA’s import rule.
Cebull’s 27-page slap-down came after he granted a request by R-CALF USA, the Billings, Mont., cattleman group, to delay USDA’s March 7 reopening until a full hearing on the rule’s facts and consequences could be heard.
Judge Cebull, a 2001 George W. Bush appointee, could have issued the injunction with the standard one-line “I-do-so-order” statement.
Instead, he chose the rarely used, full-decision approach to crush the half-true, mostly unscientific numbers USDA itself provided when it issued the import rule last December.
‘Fish in a barrel.’ It was like shooting fish in a barrel.
The orderis peppered with phrase upon phrase that guts USDA’s border reopening evidence like a crappie.
USDA’s numbers, wrote the judge, are “arbitrary and capricious;” most of its facts are “inconsistent with USDA’s assertion,” and “USDA … ignoring its statutory mandate to protect the health and welfare of the people of the United States … attempted to work backwards to support and justify” the border rule.
‘Devastating.’ Michael Stumo, legal counsel to the Organization for Competitive Markets, calls Cebull’s order “devastating” to USDA, “a steep hill, an almost vertical slope” for the agency to climb should it choose to appeal the injunction.
In truth, says Stumo, Cebull systematically quarried a slope so steep “that most people would call it by its more common name – a sheer wall.”
Defense. Despite this demolition of the rule and its packer backers at USDA, many senators came out of their rabbit holes the next day to defend both.
All knew Cebull already had filleted the rule. None, however, cited the order or its facts.
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., echoed most USDA and import rule supporters by calling Conrad’s resolution “protectionism … the use of scare tactics, the use of unsound scientific information” to keep the U.S. border closed.
It was all Grade A baloney; baloney Cebull had neatly sliced the day before.
Protection. Protectionism? “(T)esting also indicates that if Canada were to ship 1.7 million head of cattle a year to the U.S., as it did in 2002 prior to the discovery of BSE in Canada, it is a virtual certainty that Canadian cattle infected with BSE would be imported into the U.S.,” wrote the judge.
Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia and the Senate Ag Committee chair, then took a whack at Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, his resolution and its 33 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors.
“This is not a health issue,” Chambliss said. “It is not a risk to human beings if the border is reopened.”
More baloney, according to Cebull. “Allowing Canadian cattle into the U.S. increases the potential for human exposure to material containing the agent for BSE in this higher risk meat. This has substantial, irreparable consequences for cattle growers and also for all consumers of beef in or from the U.S.”
Getting it right. In the end, the Senate got it right. It voted 52-46 for food and market safety and disavowed all the gassy talk of protectionism.
Efforts are now under way to move a similar resolution in the House.
If the House relies on Cebull’s airtight indictment of USDA – and it should – it can dump the phony trade war issue back from whence it came, the White House.
President Bush, however, wants the House to kill the revolt. If it doesn’t, he promises to use his first veto ever to put USDA’s Canadian train wreck back on its rails.
That’s a horrific idea, warns Judge Cebull’s order, because it carries “the possibility of quintessential irreparable harm to the citizens of the United States.”
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)