Hurricane Katrina put animal welfare on the political agenda. But the unholy alliance between Congress and lobbyists is hampering legislative reforms.
Jan. 20, 2006 - The governmental-affairs unit of the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) operates out of a tidy building by a park, not far from the Capitol. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO, says HSUS is “not a Red Cross for animals,” but he got a lot of face time on television after Hurricane Katrina hit, pleading with government agencies to help rescue the tens of thousands of animals left behind in the evacuation efforts.
Pacelle explains that HSUS focuses on the policy issues that Katrina exposed. Who can forget those reports about the little boy who cried so hard when his dog, Snowball, was wrenched out of his arms that he threw up—or the black lab found guarding the body of a woman who sacrificed her safety because she didn’t want to leave her dog behind. The revulsion and anger generated by these and other images produced a national consensus that animals should be included in any future disaster-relief plan. President Bush, when asked in a year-end interview to name the first thing he would grab if faced with a Katrina-like disaster, replied, “Barney.”
Now it’s up to Pacelle and the 9 million HSUS members he represents to turn that sentiment into legislative reality. It should be easy since one out of every 31 Americans is a card-carrying animal lover, and HSUS has 13,000 to 14,000 members in every congressional district. But the legislative path is never easy, and it’s important to act before memories fade. The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act of 2005 has a better chance than most reform measures because of Katrina. “People are recognizing animals are part of our family, that they matter and should be cared for,” says Pacelle, who has worked in animal welfare for 20 years and says he’s been “hard-wired” since he was a toddler to care about animals.
He’s cheered on the afternoon he chatted with NEWSWEEK by the news that Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens has agreed to introduce the PETS legislation on the Senate floor. Stevens is a gruff octogenarian whose mission as a senator is to open up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. He’s not the first person who comes to mind as a pet lover. “That’s what makes him a very good communicator for the legislation,” says Pacelle. “When you have an unlikely suspect, people pay more attention. I only hope he forgives us for lobbying against ANWR.”
By Pacelle’s own admission, HSUS’s lobbying on ANWR was “pretty tepid” given their greater stake in winning Stevens’s support for PETS. But it illustrates the broad agenda of issues that HSUS lobbies on, everything from puppy mills to cockfighting to horse slaughtering. “We come up against a lot of industries, and every industry has its own corporate lobbyist and a defense mechanism designed to bollix up our reforms,” he says. “Even cockfighters have a hired lobbyist.” It typically takes an average of seven to 10 years to pass a piece of animal-welfare legislation. It’s much easier to kill a piece of reform legislation, and that’s what lobbyists do.
A particularly egregious tale of lobbyist influence thwarting the will of the people, and even the Congress, is the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, which passed the House and Senate by wide margins and was signed into law by President Bush in November. Because of the circuitous way Congress works, the measure ended up as an amendment attached to an agriculture appropriations bill, which allowed the lobbyist representing the three plants that slaughtered more than 90,000 horses last year to strike a deal with the industry-friendly Department of Agriculture to circumvent the amendment’s intent and continue the horrific practice.
Americans don’t eat horse meat; it’s not even used in pet food. We have a romantic attachment to horses and find the prospect of turning them into human food abhorrent. The three plants, all foreign-owned, two of them in Texas, export the horse meat to Europe and Asia, where it is considered a delicacy. The blatant disregard of Congress’s intent has drawn widespread editorial comment. The Washington Times published Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns’s e-mail and phone number so readers could register their outrage. Florida's St. Petersburg Times observed: “Such abuse of executive authority is common in the Bush administration, and sometimes with consequences beyond the lives of horses.”
What Pacelle finds disturbing is how an industry with no constituents and no community support can get such a friendly hearing in Washington. The culprit is the unholy alliance between lobbyists and politicians, a culture that magnifies the power of corporate lobbyists. They have money, and money buys access. The White House acknowledged this week that indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff attended meetings with presidential aides, underscoring the high-level access money buys. “If serious reforms come out of this, that should make lawmakers warier of corporate lobbyists,” says Pacelli. “And if you diminish the influence of corporate lobbyists, you increase the participation of average citizens who care about animals and want their voices heard.” Lobbyists should rise and fall on the merits of their arguments, but that hasn’t happened in Washington for a long time, maybe never.