The Politics Behind the Big, Bipartisan Food Safety Bill

It passed in what, in today's climate, looks a bit like a landslide--but it might not actually become law

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The food safety bill that made it through the Senate yesterday is a big deal: the first large bill of its kind in 70 years, according to NPR's April Fulton. The FDA gets a legal makeover. We'll have a post up soon about what the bill does and doesn't mean for food and food safety in America. Right off the bat, though, politics bloggers and reporters noticed some peculiar things about the bill's passage. Here are the ones you need to know--it's possible, for instance, that the bill won't actually become law.

  • Impressive Bipartisanship  In fact, liberal Mother Jones's Kevin Drum is perplexed: "If there's one thing that Republicans have been plain about, it's their opposition to the Democratic agenda of big government and job-killing regulations." Yet the bill passed 73-25--"A massive overhaul of the FDA's regulatory authority got not just one or two Republican votes, but 15." While "a slew of high-profile food poisoning incidents" could reasonably produce bipartisan support in "normal times," says Drum, he'd "expect the same of a huge recession and an epic financial failure," which didn't happen. "Is food safety genuinely different? Or did big ag fail to cough up enough dough this year during election season?"
  • And What Does It Say About Tea Party Power, or Lack Thereof?  The Tea Party really didn't like this bill, but it passed anyway--and by a comfortable margin. Mother Jones's Stephanie Mencimer wonders if this is "a sign that the movement has been given too much credit as a political powerbroker." She observes, for instance, that "in general, the tea party movement has only been truly successful when its interests align with corporate America's."
  • Problem: Senate and House Passed Two Different Bills  "There's no time for a conference committee in the lame-duck session," writes The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen. "Look for the House, which passed the superior version, to just swallow hard and approve the Senate bill as-is, sending it to the White House for the president's signature." NPR's April Fulton is a little more skeptical:
Time is running out for legislative accomplishments before the new Congress takes over in January. If the House insists on its version, the bills would have to be reconciled in a conference. Senate bill supporters say at best, that would drag the process out for weeks. At worst, it would prevent a bill from emerging at all.
  • Problem: Senate May Have Screwed Up Big Time  The bill, writes Roll Call's John Stanton late Tuesday night, "appears headed back to the chamber because Democrats violated a constitutional provision requiring that tax provisions originate in the House." If that's the case, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has two options: he "could simply drop the issue and let the next session of Congress start from scratch ... Or he could try to force the issue in the Senate after the House passes a new version of the bill. But in order to do that and still tackle the other issues, he would need a unanimous consent agreement to limit debate."
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