“YES” on CRA to Block the Catfish Program (S.J. Res. 28)

On Tuesday, the Senate is expected to vote on S.J.Res.28, a resolution offered by Sen. John McCain under the Congressional Review Act (CRA) that would block the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) catfish inspection rule.

For over a century, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been responsible for inspecting and regulating the nation’s food supply, including both domestic and imported seafood. That was, however, until the 2008 Farm Bill carved out catfish to instead be regulated by the USDA. As a result, facilities that process seafood will now have to comply with both USDA (for catfish) and FDA (for all other seafood) regulations. These overlapping, duplicative, and possibly conflicting regulatory regimes will cost taxpayers an unnecessary $140 million.

There is no policy justification for carving out catfish from the broader seafood regulatory structure. To wit, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a non-partisan group generally reserved and measured in its conclusions, entitled its report on the program: “Responsibility for Inspecting Catfish Should Not Be Assigned to USDA.” GAO has elsewhere concluded (as part of it’s “High Risk” of waste series) that the catfish program results in duplication and wasted spending while in no way enhancing food safety.

The duplicative regulatory requirements also have trade implications, as foreign exporters selling catfish would also have to abide by both the FDA and USDA’s regulatory structures, and specifically would require imports alone to abide by a new “equivalency” test that would effectively block out foreign catfish for years. This could harm consumers by limiting competition and choice in the catfish market. In fact, this appears to be precisely the motivation: To use a non-tariff trade barrier to burden foreign competitors in an attempt to help domestic providers corner the market. As the New York Times reported, Vietnam has taken particular offense to the new rule, and rightly so:  

Vietnam, a large exporter of catfish and one of the nations in the trade talks, says it is nothing more than a trade barrier in disguise.

“And it’s not even a good disguise; it’s clearly a thinly veiled attempt designed to keep out fish from countries like Vietnam,” said Le Chi Dzung, who heads the economics section at the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington.

While this $140 million program may appear small relative to the overall budget picture, it nevertheless looms large as a poster child of government cronyism, with special interests benefiting at the expense of everyone else. It is difficult to state it better than former FDA seafood inspection chief, Bryon Truglio, who stated:

[A] group of lobbyists and a trade association representing elements of the American catfish producers…has bullied Congress into moving catfish regulation to the USDA, making it harder for their foreign competitors to enter the US market. This move is a win for US catfish producers, but ultimately, a loss for American taxpayers and consumers.  

Fortunately, Congress may actually have the chance to block the catfish rule this year. The Obama Administration acknowledges the duplication inherent in the USDA’s catfish inspection program, and proposed eliminating it in a recent budget. Despite having advanced the rule — apparently agreeing (for once) it must abide by clear congressional statute and intent — Obama Administration opposes the rule. By sending the President this CRA for him to sign, Congress will allow this duplicative and wasteful catfish inspection rule to be blocked consistent with the rule of law.

Heritage Action supports S.J.Res.28 and will include it as a key vote on our legislative scorecard.

Heritage Action Scorecard
Heritage: “Budget Book” of 2015 — Repeal the catfish program
Heritage: Addressing Waste, Abuse, and Extremism in USDA Programs
Heritage: Policy rider suggestions for FY16 omnibus
Heritage: Taxpayers and consumers are getting catfished
Heritage: Catfish program epitomizes waste and favoritism
Heritage: Red Tape Rising 2016