Get ready for the Senate floor battle over ... catfish.
You can expect another bid by a bipartisan coalition of senators to amend the upcoming farm bill to get the Agriculture Department out of the business of inspecting catfish. The last farm bill to become law included a program requiring the USDA to deploy a new program to inspect catfish, thanks in no small part to then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who wanted extra scrutiny for imported Vietnamese basa fish.
Catfish farming is estimated to be nearly a $1 billion-a-year industry in Arkansas.
The program makes catfish subject to a different inspection regime from other fish products, which are generally the purview of the Food and Drug Administration. Skeptics, including a majority of the House Agriculture Committee and no shortage of senators, say the program is wasteful and duplicative.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asked Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow to include language in the farm bill that's due on the floor next week to kill the catfish inspections.
"Thanks to your leadership last year, the Senate has spoken on this issue and unanimously voice voted to repeal the wasteful USDA catfish inspection program on June 19, 2012," wrote 13 senators, led by McCain and Shaheen, in an April 8 letter to Stabenow.
"As your Committee strives to responsibly reduce duplication and waste within USDA while also ensuring our ranchers and farmers are not left behind, we ask that you include the elimination of this program in this year’s Farm Bill," they wrote.
Stabenow didn't do that, and her new GOP counterpart is a champion of the program.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., has been pushing Agriculture Department officials on implementation of the catfish program from his seat as ranking member of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee and a senior member of the Appropriations panel.
"The catfish industry is important in some Deep South states," Cochran said Thursday. "There is concern that not much has been done even though Congress has authorized the Food Safety and Inspection Service to inspect and grade catfish supplies to ensure they are safe to eat.”
Cochran's office is touting assurances that the final catfish rule could be issued by October. But given the level of opposition to the program in each chamber, there's no telling if the USDA's Office of Catfish Inspection Programs will last that long.
The House Agriculture Committee voted 31-15 in favor of repealing the catfish program at a markup this week, but that vote came despite "no" votes from both Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn.
An earlier version of the post misidentified Sen. Thad Cochran's home state.