Horses on the Hill

By August 1, 2009

There has been a veritable stampede on Capitol Hill, with no fewer than three horse protection bills introduced since the beginning of the year. One has already cleared the House of Representatives with a decisive 239 to 185 win, while companion bills under the Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act of 2009 are parked in the House and Senate.

“We’re really excited to see the fast movement this year on the horse slaughter issue,” said the Humane Society of the United States’ vice president of government affairs, Nancy Perry. Though anti-slaughter provisions are key to all three bills, one deals exclusively with wild horses while the other covers all equines.

ROAM—the Restore Our American Mustangs Act, H.R.1018—passed the house on July 17, and Perry couched it as a double victory: “We not only had a positive vote, we crushed an amendment that would have taken the bill down,” she said, calling ROAM “significant in that it presses for better management strategies and really advances the bill introduced last year.”

Just Say 'Neigh': Legislators supporting the ban on horse slaughter are Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA)

That bill, H.R. 249, was also sponsored by Nick Rahall (D-WVa), who introduced ROAM on Feb. 12. Acting with the urgency of cowboys in a barn fire, Congress doused slaughter opponents with the Equine Cruelty bill, introduced as S. 727 in the Senate by Mary Landrieu (D-LA) on March 26 and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the House, Rep. John Conyers (D-MA) resurrected S. 503. This go-round it has been referred to the house judiciary committee instead of energy and commerce (where it languished in a subcommittee on livestock and poultry from 2007 to 2009, one of several equine rights bills to expire as a result of a two-year “pass or purge” deadline.)

The bills seek to amend the Title 18, the U.S. criminal code, making it a federal offense to slaughter horses or traffic in their flesh. It is significant that the proposals were introduced rapidly in both the House and the Senate, where they’ve attracted formidable support. “It’s great that Representative Conyers, the lead person on 503, is the chairman of the committee where it has been assigned,” Perry said. “It has 147 co-sponsors and pretty good bipartisan support. Even Dan Burton (R-IN) who is very conservative has gotten behind it.”

Its counterpart, S. 727, is also well-positioned within the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Patrick Leahy (D-VT) is a co-sponsor. California senator Barbara Boxer has signed on as a co-sponsor; Dianne Feinstein, who is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not as yet, but is known to support the measure.

The ROAM Act also packs anti-slaughter protection, revoking the current provision allowing for the destruction of animals deemed “excess,” stipulating that only the “fatally injured” may be destroyed, and then only by humane means, criminalizing the commercial trafficking of horses and curtailing the number of horses that can be removed from the range, among other things.

Horseburger Helpers: Slaughter advocates include Representative Steve King (R-IA) and Senator Harry Reid (D-NV)

As of July ROAM did not have a bill in the Senate. Addressing concerns that without a law passed, the BLM could proceed with plans to begin euthanizing thousands of horses that it deemed excessive, Perry said flatly, “It would be some form of suicide if they did, because Congress just took a very big vote saying ‘Don’t you dare!’ It’s those same members of Congress that determine the BLM’s budget.”

This year, the BLM has been allocated $1.04 billion of which $41 million has been earmarked for wild horses and burros. “They got a pretty big budget this year, so they have money to maintain the horses. I think an agency that has struggled so hard to manage these herds knows better than to go forward with such a plan,” she added.

Others disagree. “My experience has been that the BLM is just arrogant,” said John Holland of the Equine Welfare Alliance. “They’ve gotten away with their bad behavior for so long, they think they can do whatever they want. The only thing they understand is a gun to their head.”

The BLM’s 2010 budget request for horses and burros is $67.5 million—an increase from the prior year of $26.5 million that may have been intended, at least in part, to fund a costly mass extermination plan that the agency developed behind closed doors through much of last year. ( See related story .)

Passage of any of the above bills would be a major victory, well timed to fend off increasingly aggressive pro-slaughter moves, particularly at the state level.

“The pro-slaughter group was actually pretty smart,” Holland observed. “They took the states where they have a majority—rural states don’t have many votes in the House—and pushed for action there to gain an appearance of momentum. That seemed to work in Montana and North Dakota, but remarkably they failed in the key state of Illinois, where an effort to get the ban on slaughter repealed was soundly defeated. They also failed in Texas. Those were two states that actually had horse slaughter plants, and what this said was they don’t ever want them back.”

While North Dakota has funded a $50,000 feasibility study on opening horse slaughter plants, Montana went much farther, actually passing pro-slaughter legislation. The law effectively waives environmental requirements for slaughterhouses by making it virtually impossible for them to be sued for polluting (deposits of roughly 20% of the cost of plant construction are required as a prerequisite to filing a legal challenge). The law, sponsored by the appropriately named Ed Butcher (R), is the legislative equivalent of rolling out a red carpet for meat merchants. Its constitutionality would almost certainly be challenged in federal court.

But it may not come to that. If the Equine Cruelty Act becomes U.S. law, Mr. Butcher can lay his cleaver to rest—and maybe even replace it with a halo. The brazen maneuvering by Montana and others was tinder for the brewing firestorm over equine slaughter on Capitol Hill, where federal law would trump state action, bringing the matter to a decisive close.

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