Crony Catfish

If you were looking for an example to show just how awful the legislative process is in Washington, the ongoing saga over catfish inspection is just perfect.  On its face, the 2008 law requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture to inspect catfish facilities seems relatively benign.  Who doesn’t want safer catfish?  In reality, though, the law has nothing to do with food safety and everything to do with supporting the Southern catfish industry at everyone else’s expense.

Switching catfish inspection from the FDA (where it is now) to the USDA won’t make catfish any safer.  This isn’t really a controversial point, either.  The USDA itself has said that catfish is a low risk food and can’t explain how its inspections will reduce that risk in any meaningful way.  The Government Accountability Office has advised Congress to repeal the program.  

The new inspection regime is slated to cost taxpayers $14 million more per year than the current one.  But there’s actually a much greater harm being done here.

Aside from the cost, the main impact of the new inspection regime—and its actual purpose—is that foreign catfish producers will be banned from the U.S. market until they can show equivalence to U.S. production standards.  Regardless of how they produce the catfish, showing equivalence will take years.  In the meantime, U.S. consumers will be left with nothing but domestic catfish at hugely inflated prices.

The good news is that a growing, bipartisan group of legislators has been trying to kill the program since its stealthy insertion into the 2008 farm bill.  Most recently, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) announced that she will propose an amendment to the 2015 Agriculture Appropriations Bill to defund the new inspection program.  This may be the last chance to kill the program before it finally goes into effect, exposing the United States to retaliatory action for violating our trade obligations.

The amendment will probably succeed, as similar amendments have in the past, but—just as before—that may not be enough.  The program exists not because half of our illustrious legislators have been fooled into supporting it but because Thad Cochran (R-MS) has seniority on key committees.  He and a handful of other legislators in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas are the only ones pushing for this program.  

I talk more with Caleb Brown about Thad Cochran’s Crony Catfish in this Cato podcast: