WASHINGTON, May 20, 2015 – When the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled against the U.S. on Monday for the fourth and final time in a challenge to its country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law, it was only a matter of time until efforts began on Capitol Hill to repeal the law.
Only hours after a WTO appellate panel published a ruling confirming that requiring meat labels spell out where animals are born, raised, and slaughtered accorded unfavorable treatment to imported Canadian and Mexican livestock, House Agriculture Committee chair Mike Conaway introduced H.R. 2393, a bill that would repeal COOL requirements for beef, pork, and chicken. The Texas Republican will lead a committee markup of the legislation today. On Tuesday he told reporters he expects to work with leadership to get floor time for the measure sometime in early June.
Conaway was joined at a Capitol Hill news conference by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and wide variety of industry leaders to discuss the path forward for COOL repeal. His bill currently has 56 listed cosponsors, including ag committee members from both sides of the aisle. Of the panel’s 45 members, 32 are cosponsors – including seven Democrats. Conaway, who has never been a fan, to say the least, of mandatory COOL, told reporters the “train is leaving, if not left the station” on the law’s repeal and he fully expects his committee to send the bill to the House floor.
“I do not intend to wait for the retaliatory measures to be developed,” Conaway said, referring to the tariffs Canada and Mexico could impose against U.S. imports. “Whatever the amount is going to be, it’s too much……Rather than keep those industries who might be a part of that retaliatory measures in limbo . . . the House will move quickly to get this thing settled.”
Conaway’s repeal efforts are opposed by ag committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn. Peterson is one of 12 committee Democrats who are not cosponsoring the repeal bill. In a statement Monday after the WTO decision was announced, Peterson said he was “disappointed” in the ruling. He said he feels there are “still several steps in the WTO process that must be met before any retaliation could go into effect, so we should take the time to thoughtfully consider how to move forward.”
To gain bipartisan support for his bill, Conaway teamed not with Peterson, but with Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., the ag panel’s third-ranking Democrat. Costa said he and Conaway have been having conversations about how to draft this bill for “the last month or so.” In an interview with Agri-Pulse, Costa said it will be important to work with Senate and administration officials to ensure that this bill has a chance of becoming law, but said he hasn’t heard whether or not President Barack Obama is willing to sign the bill in its current form. Conaway also said he hasn’t talked to the administration about the bill.
The bill would repeal COOL requirements for beef, pork, and poultry - even though the provision in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills also included language concerning lamb, goat, and some forms of fish and nuts. Conaway said he wanted to keep the bill “targeted just to the issue.” He also noted that lamb and goat producers requested to remain under the COOL rule. When asked why he didn’t also include those two segments of the meat industry in the bill, Conaway said he was simply more concerned with fixing the big issues involved in the WTO dispute.
“It’s a fight we don’t need to have right now. I want to fix this,” Conaway said. “Unlike those colleagues that are also bringing tangential issues to the table to try to muck up the waters and trade their votes, I’m not doing that. I’m sticking with the issues that’ll fix Canada and Mexico quickly and get this over with.”
While the House looks poised to move quickly, the WTO doesn’t appear to be in any hurry. Under WTO rules, Canada and Mexico can now seek retaliation, and in a joint statement, both governments noted their intention to do so. In the likely event that the U.S. objects to the dollar figure attached to the retaliation, the case will be sent to WTO arbitration, a process that typically takes 60 days, but can take longer, which Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said gives lawmakers more time to consider pursuing repeal or reform.
“History suggests (a) 60 day timetable at the WTO, (which) usually slips a little,” Grassley told reporters Tuesday morning. “So while it’s not guaranteed, it’s very likely Congress will have all summer to develop an acceptable COOL fix.”
Conaway and other members of the House have long been advocates for COOL repeal, but there is less sentiment for repeal on the other side of the Hill. Some Senators prefer to learn more about potential retaliation before supporting any changes. Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has said he will “consider any solution” to the issue including full repeal. Conaway said he is hopeful his Senate counterparts in agricultural leadership will come around to his side of the argument after they see the strong support the bill garners in his chamber.
When asked if he had any “plan B” should the Senate oppose repeal, Conaway said: “They say they’ll take any solution; the best solution is full repeal. It’s clear, it’s concise, it brings stability to the process, and it’s targeted . . . this is the solution. The chairman added that he hopes for a big House vote in early June that “will help the Senate move something that’s similar to what we’ve got.” Both chambers will be on Memorial Day recess next week and return to Washington June 1.
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