By: Maggie Coulter
As the 112th Congress enters its August recess, current legislators are rushing to pass bills before the presidential election and lame duck period begin. Hidden in this flood of legislation are four biotechnology riders with huge potential impact upon the nation’s agriculture and food as well as public health. The House of Representatives’ Appropriations Bill currently includes one of the so-called ‘biotech riders,’ and the House Farm Bill contains the other three.
The single House Appropriations Bill biotechnology rider (inserted into HR 5973, the Fiscal Year 2013 Agriculture Appropriations Bill) would strip the federal courts of their ability to halt the planting of hazardous genetically engineered (GE) crops and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a potentially unconstitutional breach of the separation of powers doctrine. This amendment violates the separation of powers doctrine by removing the federal court’s oversight of Congressional legislation. Even more alarming, as appropriations bills are a type of “must pass” legislation, they are often filled with unrelated riders tacked onto the main bills in the hope that they will be approved alongside the essential bill without notice. Though there is hope that House members may take issue with the questionable constitutionality of this bill, there is little evidence that House leadership will bring this issue to the attention of the House Rules Committee. Unfortunately, as there is only a small window of time that the Rules Committee can address this concern, the bill passed in the House Agricultural Committee without issue. This biotech rider represents “an unprecedented attack on U.S. judicial review . . . an essential element of U.S. law [which] provides a critical check on government decisions that may negatively impact human health, the environment or livelihoods.” (Center for Food Safety Fact Sheet, “Oppose Biotech Rider in House Agriculture Appropriations Bill (Sec. 733).”)*
While the Appropriations biotech rider would remove the entirety of judicial oversight concerning GE crops and GMOs, the three House Farm Bill riders could have an even greater impact (Sections 10011, 10013, and 10014 of the House Agriculture Committee’s discussion draft of the 2012 Farm Bill). These three amendments are aimed at eroding the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) oversight role in the regulation of genetically engineered crops. The rider would allow the chemical and biotech industries to utilize multiple backdoor approval mechanisms, limit the ability of the USDA to conduct environmental reviews, limit review of the deregulation of GE crops by other governmental agencies, as well as compel the USDA to finalize approvals for low-level presence of GE materials in non-GE crops.
The Senate has already passed its version of the Farm Bill that will need to be reconciled with the House’s rider-riddled version (which, though passed by the House Agricultural Subcommittee, was never presented to the House floor or passed by the full House) in a joint committee of Congress, likely in September before the presidential election. Once a final bill is determined by the joint committee, it will be too late to strip out the genetically modified organism and GE riders. Unfortunately for any person who consumes food grown in the United States, the joint committee won’t be reconciling the rider-filled House bill with the relatively clean Senate bill; instead, the House bill and all of its nefarious biotech amendments will be reconciled with the Senate bill, leaving no time for the biotech amendments to be removed. Further, it is very likely Congress will pass the joint committee bill whatever riders it contains due to fear of another government shutdown debacle.
Additionally, the House and Senate Appropriations Bills will also need to be reconciled. It is a concern that when this bill reaches joint committee, the one Appropriations rider will be used as a bargaining chip by anti-environmental lobbyists to cut funding for beneficial environmental programs. If this were to occur in joint committee, a lesser of two evils problem could further cripple Congress.
If these riders are passed alongside their respective bills, the ultimate result would be to fundamentally change the existing regulatory framework surrounding genetically engineered crops and GMOs to create a means for large corporations to bypass USDA standards and obtain backdoor approval. Essentially, these riders would circumvent the federal regulations currently in place to protect the average consumer, neutering the federal government, its’ agencies, and the federal courts when dealing with potentially dangerous and untested genetically engineered crops and GMOs.
These biotech riders have an impact beyond the GE and GMO industries. Congress should not have the power to interfere with the role of the federal government and its agencies, or the role of the judiciary as a check on the legislature. Meddling with the fundamental principles of our Constitution by eroding the separation of powers and eliminating the checks and balances among the three branches of government is an egregious overstep of Congressional power. These biotechnology riders will be felt beyond the legislature, as they impact the agricultural realm, public health and social policy, and the chemical and biotech industries. The enormous impacts of these riders and the likelihood that they will pass paint a disheartening picture of the state of policy today.
Center for Food Safety Fact Sheet, “Oppose Biotech Rider in House Agriculture Appropriations Bill (Sec. 733).”*
Center for Food Safety Fact Sheet, “Oppose the Biotech Riders in House Farm Bill (Sec. 10011, 10013 & 10014.”*
*Available from the Legislation and Policy Brief via email.