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Constitutional Provision Threatens Food Safety Bill

Helen Tobin |
December 2, 2010 | 10:38 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

The Senate is trying to make your food safer, but a procedural snafu may jeopardize the sweeping food safety bill passed Tuesday.  The Food Safety Modernization Act, which is designed to reduce outbreaks of food-borne illness by giving the Food and Drug Administration more authority, is the first overhaul of the food safety system in decades. The House passed a more stringent version of the measure last year, and House leaders said they would accept the Senate’s version.  

Over 380 million eggs were recalled this year after being linked to salmonella poisoning. (Creative Commons)
Over 380 million eggs were recalled this year after being linked to salmonella poisoning. (Creative Commons)

That may not be possible anymore. Staffers learned after the Senate vote that one section might violate a constitutional provision that calls for any new taxes to originate in the House rather than the Senate. The section in question will impose fees on importers and farmers whose food is recalled due to contamination. If the House Ways and Means Committee determines that those fees amount to taxes, it will nullify the Senate’s vote.  

House leaders met Wednesday to try to save the bill, and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer voiced frustration after the meeting. 

"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."

Parliamentary maneuvers may get the bill back on track, but it would require the Senate to take another vote. While the bill passed 73-25 on Tuesday, Republicans are now threatening to block the measure if it comes to vote again. GOP senators sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday promising to block any legislation in the lame-duck congress that does not extend the Bush tax cuts or fund the government.

Sen. Tom Harkin remains optimistic, saying nothing will kill the bill. Harkin, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee chairman who authored the bill, said Wednesday that Senate leaders have a new plan to first pass the measure in the House, then send it back to the Senate by the end of the week. 

“I think we’re going to get it done. I think it’s going to happen soon. We’re going to get something back from the House that we can move,” Harkin said.

The snafu is still a setback for a Senate trying to address a host of issues in the lame-duck session. The Bush tax cuts, Don't Ask Don't Tell, and the immigration DREAM Act are all on the agenda before the recess. If the measure passes, President Obama has promised to sign it into law.  

Watch The Daily Show's take on the controversy. 



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