Last Week’s Amendments on Shark Finning and Horse Slaughter Are Markers of What’s Required to Pass National Legislation

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a multi-billion-dollar bill to boost American manufacturing to allow us to better compete with China. Tucked within it was a provision to ban selling shark fins in the United States. Meanwhile, a key House committee debated an amendment to stop the transport of American horses to foreign slaughter plans as part of a trillion-dollar transportation and infrastructure bill.

Neither maneuver was the final word on these animal protection reforms, but instead were important tactical maneuvers in the grinding, laborious process of lawmaking. These creative tactics are indicators of just how difficult lawmaking for animals is, given that our issues typically attract determined opposition from animal-use industries and their political allies on Capitol Hill.

Passing Social Reforms at the National Level Has Always Been Mightily Difficult

Feuding, obstructionism, and the ubiquity of money are features of modern American politics. Indeed, it may be tougher than ever to secure progress for social reforms on Capitol Hill, with the roiling debate over eliminating the filibuster as one expression of that frustration when even a single Senator can stop the progress of popular legislation.

Let’s remember though that it’s never been easy to enact serious-minded, consequential reforms at the federal level, in a nation as big and heterodox as ours is. That’s always been the case. Our U.S. Constitution, in creating a particular brand of representative government, places many roadblocks along the way in enacting laws even when comity reigns.

Think about how long it took to abolish the slave trade, to pass civil rights legislation, or to give women the right to vote. Consider then the modern-day challenges of establishing legal protections for voiceless animals, who must rely on animal advocates as their proxies. We must overcome our political adversaries’ appeals to tradition, profits, and jobs, along with sneering attitudes that animals were placed here for their use.

For enactment, a bill must not only win votes in the House and Senate but in a series of subcommittee and committee votes. Then the President can affirm or nullify the collective Congressional action by signing or vetoing the legislation. Opponents have to win just one time in a process where there are half a dozen battle points, while the advocates have to win every skirmish.

In the 116th Congress (2019-2020), Congress passed 344 public laws, with 14,000 bills proposed. That is a success rate of two percent. Prior Congresses have relatively similar rates of success, though there seem to be more bills and more money in politics than ever.

Advocates Demand End to Sharks as Soup and Horses as Steaks

Take horse slaughter as a case example of legislative gridlock.  Lawmakers demanding greater protections have proposed anti-slaughter legislation for more than a quarter century.  Yes, we have had success in shutting down the U.S.-based plants, with a combination of state lawmaking and court action, along with federal efforts to bar the U.S. Department of Agriculture from inspecting horses for slaughter. But dead horse slaughter bills are piled high in the waste bin of long-concluded Congressional sessions.

And the butchering of horses continues. Last year, kill buyers and transporters collaborated to ship 37,000 American horses and burros to slaughter at foreign abattoirs, according to USDA. 

With the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other agribusiness groups favoring horse slaughter, it’s very unlikely that anti-slaughter legislation would move through regular order (the bill wending its way through the committee process and then onto the floor).  Even a single Senator can block the advance of a stand-alone horse slaughter bill, thwarting the wish of a super-majority of lawmakers and the American public who want reform.

We’ve got to learn our political lessons.  We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.

That’s why Animal Wellness Action (AWA), the Animal Wellness Foundation (AWF), and the Center for a Humane Economy (CHE) exhorted key lawmakers last week to push for an amendment through a different channel to ban transport of horses for slaughter. AWA pushed an amendment, endorsed by more than 200 organizations and led by Congressman Troy A. Carter, D-La., John Katko, R-N.Y., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., to the INVEST in America Act before the House Transportation Committee. It’s right on point to argue that shipping horses and burros on overcrowded trailers to Canada and Mexico is a national transportation issue.

Rep. Carter offered and withdrew his amendment, with the promise from Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, that he would work with the amendment’s authors and others, including SAFE Act author Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., to address the problem on the House floor where the INVEST in America Act is expected to land soon. 

The issue of shark finning saw even more tangible progress last week. Thanks to the determined work of Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J., Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.V., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, the Senate Commerce Committee passed an amendment to the China competition legislation to ban the sale of fins, overcoming the opposition of Senator Rick Scott, R-Fla, and a handful of other opponents. (For years, Senator Marco Rubio, the senior Senator from Florida, has blocked the legislation, despite an overwhelming vote in the House.) 

With the shark finning provision attached as an amendment to this much larger bill, it makes it much more difficult for a single legislator to stop it, since he or she would have to kill the entire package. And sure enough, the China competition bill, with the anti-finning amendment appended, passed with 70 votes in the Senate.

If the House concurs, we may finally have a national anti-finning policy – an idea that has been proposed for nearly a decade. Policy success would be worth the wait though, given that it would close the massive United States market to a trade that lays waste to tens of millions of sharks on a global scale.

The Political Process Requires Determined Action, Many Strategies

Many of the most important animal protection measures to be enshrined in law in recent decades have been appended to larger legislative vehicles. Our greatest set of gains through the years have come by the difficult process of amending the Farm bill. That is where, in 2018, we won passage of a comprehensive national ban on animal fighting, a ban on the trade in dog and cat meat, and the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act to address the connection between domestic violence and animal cruelty.

There are a small number of animal welfare bills that clear both chambers with little or no opposition. Finding that kind of consensus often takes years, working with lawmakers and with industry to sort through their concerns. That was the case in 2019 with the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act (PACT), a national anti-cruelty law first introduced eight years earlier, and the Rescuing Animals With Rewards (RAWR) Act.  It was also true with the 2007 Animal Fighting Prohibition Act, making dogfighting and cockfighting a federal felony (even though that bill did not expand all prohibitions in the law to the U.S. territories).

In 2020, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act – a ban on race-day doping that won the support of key players within the Thoroughbred industry – cleared both the House and Senate unanimously, also after eight years of lobbying. The Jockey Club, a group of track owners and horse owners and the breed registry for Thoroughbreds, was instrumental in working with animal protection groups, including AWA, to get this measure done.

The takeaway is, lawmaking is arduous and fraught with challenges, especially for animal protection legislation. If we are to secure essential reforms for animals, we must be tireless in our work, creative in our approaches, politically engaged and active in a serious-minded way, and open to discussion and debate even with the most steadfast of our adversaries.

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