Say “catfish” in a seafood restaurant and you’ll be sure to get a nice plate of filling protein. But say “catfish” in Washington and you’re more likely to tick someone off. That’s because here, catfish are embroiled in a political mess, and the only way to understand the controversy is to follow the money. The catfish situation is an unbelievably perfect microcosm for the all-encompassing influence of money in our politics and government.
Congress passed two farm bills in 2008 and 2014, which together tasked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with the inspection of catfish imports. That office, which costs $20 million or $30 million depending on who you ask, served as a replacement for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which had previously administered the inspections.
A simple bureaucratic change resulted in uproar. The Government Accountability Office has labeled the USDA’s catfish inspection program as one of the most egregious examples of government waste. The FDA inspected all foreign and domestic fish products, but now, it inspects everything except catfish. It’s no surprise that the new regulations are causing total confusion at the FDA, which continued to inspect the catfish just to be sure they were doing their jobs.
And that duplication—that both the USDA (which employs more stringent requirements) and FDA were inspecting the fish—was precisely the point of the regulation. American catfish farmers have been in something of a trade war with their Vietnamese counterparts for more than a decade. Terrified by the prospect of losing out to their Vietnamese competition, the catfish industry, represented by the Catfish Farmers of America, has been aggressively lobbying for regulations on imports since 2002. (Import tariffs are a popular way for Washington to deter foreign competition because they can increase the cost of doing business in the United States.) In that year, the fights were waged over country of origin labeling requirements and anti-dumping provisions.
Catfish Farmers of America, which is based in the small Mississippi town of Indianola, has been behind the fight since the beginning. It can’t be a coincidence that Republican Senator Thad Cochran, also of Mississippi, defended the USDA office and removed the language that would have repealed it in the 2014 Farm Bill. And just a few weeks ago, when the Senate began consideration of a bill that returned catfish inspections to the FDA, Cochran and Roger Wicker, his fellow Mississippian in the Senate, tried and failed to block the bill from progressing. Sen. Wicker also wrote an op-ed in the Hattiesburg American that defended the move to the USDA, arguing that it protected consumer safety. And how did the senators from Alabama and Arkansas, the other two major catfish states, vote? All four voted no. And unsurprisingly, as the bill moves to the House, a large group of representatives, mostly from the Gulf states, has written to the House leadership begging them to not take up the legislation to protect consumers’ health.
But from the beginning, it was clear that this wasn’t about health at all. This was a ploy to create a trade barrier against Vietnam’s imports, backed by the Catfish Farmers of America. No wonder their lobbying doubled in two years to 2011 and 2012—when Sen. Wicker was up for re-election—and immediately before 2013, when the Farm Bill was introduced to Congress.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has been leading the charge in the renewed fight for repeal, and as promising as it looks, there’s a bitter aftertaste after examining the details. Sen. McCain is joined by two other senators, Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, and Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat. If the bipartisanship didn’t make you look twice, maybe you should check where they’re from. Ayotte and Shaheen are the two senators from New Hampshire.
A few days ago in the New Hampshire Union Leader, an opinion piece praised Sens. Ayotte and Shaheen for their commitment to fighting to return catfish inspections to the FDA. The author also drew the connection between the senators and their home state, calling New Hampshire a unique model for bipartisanship, a magical land where partisan bickering ceases to exist.
One could be forgiven for thinking this piece was written by a proud, average New Hampshire citizen. But Keith Decker is no average Granite Stater. He’s the CEO of High Liner Foods USA, a frozen fish importer based in Portsmouth. High Liner Foods, which Ayotte and Shaheen recently visited to discuss the catfish regulations, is strongly allied with the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), a trade group that represents the seafood industry. How strongly allied? High Liner was named the 2014 National Fisheries Institute donor of the year.
The NFI has donated plenty to the two New Hampshire senators. Since their elections to Congress, the NFI PAC has given $15,500 to Ayotte, $5,000 of which has been given this year for her tough re-election campaign, and $11,000 to Shaheen, who put in more effort and recently penned an op-ed in Roll Call that called for an end to the USDA program.
There may be a right and wrong side of this debate, but nearly everyone involved has benefited from special interest influence. When our elected leaders answer to wealthy donors, unions and corporations, they aren’t free to make decisions that are better for their constituents and our country.