Procedural problem threatens food safety bill

A rash of food recalls, from peanuts to eggs, led to several deaths and new calls for a comprehensive food-safety bill, but it has become stalled in Congress. The recalls have also led many food growers and processors to hire private inspectors to protect themselves from lawsuits, but experts say the inspections are rife with flaws and often do not make products safer.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 10:40 PM

A procedural problem is threatening to derail a landmark food safety measure passed by the Senate on Tuesday, sending congressional leaders scrambling to figure out a way to get the bill enacted into law by the end of the lame-duck session this month.

The legislation, which would give vast new authority to the Food and Drug Administration and is designed to reduce nationwide outbreaks of food-borne illness, has wide public support. The House passed a more stringent version more than a year ago, and before House leaders knew about the procedural problem, they indicated the House would accept the Senate version. President Obama has said he would sign the bill into law.

But after the Senate approved the measure, 73 to 25, staffers learned one section could violate a constitutional provision that calls for any new taxes to originate in the House rather than the Senate.

The section in question would impose fees on importers, and on farmers and food processors whose food is recalled because of contamination. If it is determined that those fees amount to taxes, it would essentially nullify the vote by the Senate. The House Ways and Means Committee decides whether the fees are equivalent to taxes.

House leaders met behind closed doors Wednesday seeking a way to save the bill.

Afterward, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) voiced frustration to reporters. "This has happened to us four or five times with the Senate," Hoyer said. "The Senate knows this rule and should follow this rule. They should be cognizant of the rule. Nobody ought to be surprised by this rule. It's in the Constitution. And they've all been lectured, and we have as well, about reading the Constitution."

Several parliamentary maneuvers could get the bill back on track, but nearly all would require the Senate to take another vote on the bill. That is a challenging proposition given the Senate's compressed agenda for the remaining four weeks, which includes passing a continuing resolution to fund the federal government and taking up a measure to extend the Bush-era tax cuts.

Senate Republicans complicated that scenario Wednesday by sending a letter to Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) in which they promised to block any legislation in the lame-duck session that does not extend tax cuts or fund the government.

Staff writer Felicia Somnez contributed to this report.

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