Correction to This Article
The Sept. 8 Washington Sketch about a House debate misattributed a quote calling horse slaughtering "brutal, shadowy, shameful, predatory." This was spoken by Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.), not Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who had spoken earlier on the same side of the debate.

Down the Homestretch, the House Wanders Off Course

Rep. Edward Whitfield (R-Ky.), left, speaks at a Capitol Hill rally for a ban on horse slaughter for human consumption. During yesterday's debate over the bill, some members questioned House priorities as Congress nears its finish line.
Rep. Edward Whitfield (R-Ky.), left, speaks at a Capitol Hill rally for a ban on horse slaughter for human consumption. During yesterday's debate over the bill, some members questioned House priorities as Congress nears its finish line. (By Dennis Cook -- Associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Friday, September 8, 2006

Let us stipulate, as the lawyers like to say, that horses should not be slaughtered for human consumption.

Let us further stipulate that there is nothing inherently offensive about minting coins to commemorate the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth.

Still, the question arises: What are House Republicans thinking?

Returning from a five-week summer vacation, GOP lawmakers have much to worry about: war in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorism and border problems, high energy prices and health-care costs, and none of the federal government's annual spending bills enacted.

So what did House leaders decide to make the centerpiece of the week? H.R. 503: the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. This legislation, passed yesterday, followed Wednesday's action on a full slate of bills including H.R. 2808, the Abraham Lincoln Commemorative Coin Act.

And to think that Republicans are in jeopardy of losing their majority in the House.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), setting the pace for yesterday's debate, was champing at the bit. Holding a poster of a horse's bloody head in the well, he proclaimed: "What we are exposing today is a brutal, shadowy, shameful, predatory practice that borders on the perverse."

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) was equally hot-to-trot in support of horse slaughtering. "These horses are eating our cellulose and costing us ethanol," he countered.

The debate -- lasting nearly four hours while horse lover Bo Derek watched from the gallery -- quickly degenerated into dueling expressions of equestrian love.

"The horses are part of the history of this nation, and the West would never have been settled if it weren't for the horses," declared Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) in support of the horsemeat ban.

Whoa, answered pro-slaughter Rep. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.) "My horse Skychief Poco and I won the 1997 SandHills Rodeo and quarter horse shows team penning championship."

Democrats enjoyed all the whinnying. "I'm for the horsies, too; I'll vote for it," allowed Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). But what about Iraq, energy, health care and the federal debt? "I can't believe that we are here today using the very limited time left to this Congress to deal with horsemeat," she said.

Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), meeting privately with colleagues in the morning, referred to the legislation as "the horse [expletive] bill," according to someone present at the meeting.

Even Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), who as Rules Committee chairman helped to jockey the horse bill to the floor, was a bit sheepish about trotting out the legislation. The work of Rep. John Sweeney (R-Saratoga Race Course), it would effectively close the three U.S.-based slaughterhouses that produce horsemeat for human consumption in Europe and Asia.

"When you've got Bo Derek twisting your arm, what can you say?" Dreier rationalized, noting that the actress visited the Republican breakfast caucus before the debate. The chairman, in a brief interview off the House floor, tried to rein in the story: "This will be old news as of tomorrow."

Even before the horse bill, House leaders had been a bit sensitive about their legislative pace. The People's Representatives have been in session for all of 80 days this year, and with 15 days remaining on the legislative calendar, the House is on pace to shatter all records for inactivity. The "Do-Nothing" House of 1948 was positively frenetic by comparison, passing 1,191 measures in 110 days in session.

The current House has passed barely 400 measures, including this week's lineup of legislative priorities: H. Res. 912, "Supporting the goals and ideals of National Life Insurance Awareness Month" and H. Res. 605, "Recognizing the life of Preston Robert Tisch and his outstanding contributions to New York City, the New York Giants Football Club, the National Football League, and the United States."

By yesterday, when the House devoted itself to equine slaughter, even Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the dead-serious House minority leader, was ready for a bit of horseplay. "And we can't even get out of the gate with any good legislation!" she observed as she headed to the speaker's office for a meeting.

For all their ridicule, Democrats weren't about to let the other side canter off with the horse-lover's vote. "I've been around horses all my life," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who represents Manhattan's Upper East Side. "They are cherished companions. They are sporting animals. . . . They are probably the most beloved animals native to the United States."

Nobody pointed out that the Spanish introduced the modern horse to the Americas; everybody was busy praising the beasts.

"They are as close to humans as any animal can get," asserted Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.).

"I have as much appreciation and admiration for these creatures as anyone in this body," challenged Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.).

"Look at the monument in front of the Capitol -- it's a horse!" exulted Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.). It took the long-in-the-tooth Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the dean of the House, to rear up against the horse celebration. "It's a triumph of emotion over common sense," he scolded. "We have before us a solution, a poor one, to a nonexistent problem."

But in the final tally, 263 lawmakers voted for the horse bill. Only 146 dared to say "nay."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company