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Don't let Congress trample Maryland's rights

When Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, ranking member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, helped Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa craft an amendment to the Farm Bill that would nullify dozens — if not hundreds — of state laws, this was his explanation, clear and simple: "I'm tired of these states doing this crap." And apparently a narrow majority of the House of Representatives agrees, since this amendment was included in the pared-down version of the Farm Bill that passed the House, 216-208.

What Mr. Peterson so crudely referred to were state laws that safeguard public health, food safety, animal welfare and the environment. It potentially includes a whole host of state legislation including laws addressing the intensive confinement of farm animals, requiring labeling of farm-raised fish, banning BPA in baby food jars, banning the sale of raw milk, and (recently passed in Maryland) banning arsenic in chicken feed. These state laws are just the tip of the iceberg for Reps. Peterson and King, whose poorly drafted, overreaching amendment flies in the face of states' rights and the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

As co-chairs of the Maryland Joint Committee on Federal Relations, we are stunned. When issues of public health and safety are concerned, a state should be able to protect its citizens as it sees fit — including by going beyond federal protections when necessary. Federal health and safety protections should always be considered a floor, not a ceiling. We were pleased to see that the National Conference of State Legislatures agrees, sending a letter recently to leaders in Congress urging removal of the King Amendment.

The King Amendment prohibits states from imposing conditions on the production of any agricultural product sold in the state if the production occurs in another state, and if the condition is in addition to federal standards or standards of the state in which production occurs. Take a minute to process the enormity of that proposal. This would force states to allow commerce in products they have banned — no matter how dangerous, unethical or environmentally destructive. It would prohibit states from setting standards for products sold within their boundaries. Questionable agricultural products allowed in Mississippi or Texas would have to be sold to Marylanders and Virginians, even over the objections of their own elected lawmakers. It is the lowest-common-denominator approach to policymaking, and puts all states at the mercy of one or a handful of states. This is a radical assault on the states.

While the provision ostensibly seeks to target state animal welfare laws, it is so broad and vague that it could be interpreted to nullify an entire spectrum of state laws dealing with food safety, labeling, labor, and environmental protection. It could trigger expensive court cases about any state law related to agricultural products, from the sale of raw milk, to the labeling of farm-raised fish or artificial sweeteners, to restrictions on firewood transported into a state in order to protect against invasive pests and damage to local forests.

And — perhaps the biggest slap in the face — this amendment was adopted in committee after about 10 minutes of discussion. There were no hearings, no testimony, no public scrutiny or debate (unlike, we might add, all of the state laws this amendment seeks to undermine). In Maryland, our law banning arsenic in chicken feed was passed after three long years of robust discussion, careful study and university research, with many revisions and a rigorous effort to balance competing interests. This is a policy we put in place to protect Marylanders, with the input of Marylanders, and for Congress to override that process is arrogant and insulting.

States have long been considered laboratories of democracy, and that was one of the founding principles of our country. The King Amendment casts this principle aside and instead advocates a race to the bottom for state policy. And this is far from the first time ill-considered federal legislation has sought to pre-empt state health and safety protections. We are thankful that the Senate version of the Farm Bill does not include this language and urge the conference committee to strip the Peterson-King amendment from the Farm Bill when the two versions are reconciled.

Del. Tom Hucker (tom@tomhucker.com) and Sen. Jennie Forehand (jennie.forehand@senate.state.md.us.) represent Montgomery County in the Maryland General Assembly. They are co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Federal Relations.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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