The Congressional Review Act is an arcane regulatory repeal tool that has been used by Congress successfully only once. With a quick vote in Congress and the signature of President Bush on March 20, 2001, the Labor Department's controversial ergonomics rule was wiped out of existence.
Now, opponents of an Agriculture Department rule that would reopen the U.S. border on Monday to some imports of Canadian live cattle and beef are turning to Congress as one front in their fight to stop the rule. The opponents say they fear the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, in the United States from Canadian stock. The disease causes fatal brain degeneration in cattle and may cause a similar disease in humans who eat contaminated beef.
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In May 2003, a single cow in Canada was found to have BSE, an event which closed the border to Canadian cattle imports. The Agriculture Department has since determined that live cattle under 30 months old and beef from such cattle pose a minimal risk to consumers, and it issued a rule that would open the border to those imports.
That hasn't sat well with a group of independent ranchers called R-CALF (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America), who want to stop the rule. They have drummed up support to introduce a joint "resolution of disapproval" of the rule -- the only way to stop a regulation without going to court or cutting funding for its implementation.
Led by Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), the resolution was introduced Feb. 14 in the Senate. If there are 30 sponsors, the resolution can go directly to the Senate floor for a vote. It also must pass the House. Twelve senators have signed on to sponsor the resolution: two Republicans and 10 Democrats.
The repeal effort is a long shot because disapproval requires the president's signature, and the likelihood of persuading President Bush to sign legislation reversing his own department's policy is not good. But never mind how the resolution is likely to end up; it almost didn't get off the ground at all.
When Conrad decided to introduce the bill on Feb. 10, Senate parliamentarians told him the USDA never filed the rule. A bill number could not be put on the legislation because no rule had been filed -- hence there was nothing to disapprove. Under the law, agencies have to send a copy of a final rule to both houses of Congress to give lawmakers an opportunity to review it.
A spokesman for Conrad said the USDA came up with a receipt showing that it had properly filed the paperwork. A feverish hunt ensued and ended in a National Archives warehouse in Beltsville, where the original rule had been shipped. It was found stapled to the back of a voluminous USDA filing on tangerines and clementines.
Once the errant paper was located, the resolution could begin to move forward.
Backers are mounting an all-out push to get it to the Senate floor this week. But meanwhile, opponents of reopening the border aren't looking solely to Congress, and the beef industry is far from unanimous on what should happen next.