Back in May of 2016, Representative Hal Rogers (R-KY), whose name is usually prefaced with the words “ the powerful head of the appropriations committee” sent a letter off to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that could be charitably described as abrasive and accurately described as arrogant in tone. In a city where it is hard to get congressmen to speak directly about any subject, Rogers’ letter stood out for its finger- in- the- chest approach.
Representative Rogers, who has long carried the water for the performance walking horse trade up on Capitol Hill and whose former staffer Jeff Speakes is now the lobbyist for big lick interests, was clearly angry. Because the walking horse bunch was asleep at the wheel, cozy in their appeals court victory over the USDA against mandatory minimum penalties, Rogers, too, was blindsided when the USDA announced its intention to go to rule making regarding the Horse Protection Act.
With the PAST Act, whose bipartisan support led the legislative pack of bills in 2015, unable to get to the floor of either the House or the Senate, thanks to the efforts of people like Representative Rogers and his fellow Kentuckian Senator Mitch McConnell, joined by tag team member Senator Lamar Alexander, the folks living in the land of denial were confident that once again they had prevailed in the on-going attempt to bring about an end to more than 40 years of soring horses to obtain exaggerated gaits useful only for brief periods of flash and labored performance around an oval, increasingly framed by empty seats.
When powerful people are paid to bottle things up, they like the cork to stay put. Rule making was an unexpected POP that sent the big lick contingent to general quarters and hence to Representative Rogers who controls the purse strings in the House. Having threatened USDA funding before on this issue, he could be expected to play his part again.
Rogers demanded in his letter that Vilsack report to him how funds obligated in fiscal year 2015 for enforcement of the Horse Protection Act had been spent. He directed the Secretary to provide documentation of all threats over a period of the last five years that the USDA/APHIS had received while enforcing the HPA. He was combative in requesting that USDA/APHIS certify personally to him that the department had not consulted or engaged with any non-governmental agency in drafting the proposed rule that so raised his blood pressure because it raised the ire of his loyal campaign contributors.
If Rogers’ letter had been a movie script, you might describe the lead character as: “ an opinionated man of mature years in a position of power takes out his white glove and strikes another official across the cheek, the classic insult in years past of one Kentucky gentleman to another, having discarding all pretenses of mannerly civility.”
These days, thankfully, pens and committee hearings are the preferred weapons in D.C. duels between government officials.
Secretary Vilsack did not respond under his own signature, an action some might say was a version of the cut direct; but he did, through the formal response made by the USDA’s Todd Batta, Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations, take Representative Rogers “kindly and forgivingly by the hand” , and in producing the information that he had demanded, killed him, figuratively, with the results.
Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.
According to Batta, the APHIS obligated $681,000 in FY 2015 and had, as of June 20, 2016 obligated $383,722 in HPA enforcement activities. If those numbers make your eyes blink, they should.
The amount of money being spent to try to regulate a rich man’s hobby based in animal cruelty, which has limited participation and even less social benefit , should make tax payers seethe, especially as this drain on the public purse has continued for more than 40 years. This small segment of the horse world has gone its own way despite repeated attempts to enforce the law and has made the taxpayers of America pay for the privilege of trying to stop them from hurting horses for show.
This works out to an average of just over 13K spent on each of the 52 horse shows that USDA VMOs attended in 2015 with another 6 K spent to provide security for the veterinarians who were at those shows doing their jobs.
A person familiar with the USEF and FEI programs that control equestrian sport in the larger equestrian world would find it impossible to believe that money like this is spent year after year trying to ineffectively police a small group of miscreants showing a very small group of horses. In contrast, effective inspection programs within these two bodies are self-policing, self-financing, and self-penalizing in mandatory ways, including meaningful suspensions, after hearings are conducted by the organizations when horsemen are accused of breaking the rules. The names of the violators including the offense and the penalties are published by the organizations for all to see. Why? Because these organizations want to stop such behavior in its tracks rather than make bad behavior a condition for entry into a Hall of Fame.
What should have made Representative Rogers’ eyes blink was the additional amount that APHIS has had to pay for security to protect its VMOs from the big lick community.
According to Batta , providing complete information, $315,560.00 was spent on security in 2015 and as of June 9, 2016, another $188,588.00 has been spent to ensure that government employees were not harmed and/or threatened by what can be a pretty rough crowd ( the sort of people, as an example, that tried to run down with a truck a protestor armed only with a sign, as happened in 2015, and was proven in court).
Security dollars do not, Batta courteously reassured the rancorous representative, come out of the HPA budget but are included as a line item in the USDA’s physical and operational security category. This line item provides necessary security when needed for all of APHIS’ programs where, no surprise, regulation is notwelcomed by the people and industriesbreaking the law who arebeing regulated under the laws of the United States.
And why are such sums necessary? Batta was also able to provide those answers to Representative Rogers who had seemed to imply in his letter that he believed the USDA was blowing smoke about real and present threats to its personnel.
According to USDA records, since 2011 to the present, the time period requested by Representative Rogers, 99 threats have been documented.
In 2016 alone (and the show season is still young), there have been 13 threats made against APHIS personnel. Four of these, according to Batta’s response came from The Gulf Coast Trainers’ Charity Show held in Panama City Beach, Florida. This show saw 40% of the entries inspected by USDA VMOs considered to be in violation of the HPA. Another threat came from the Spring Fun Show, held in Shelbyville, Tennessee, where “fun” and misbehavior travel hand in hand.
If he believes Mr. Batta, Representative Rogers must have been surprised to find that the ‘good clean family tradition entertainment’ that he has been supporting all these years, in addition to its documented reliance on animal cruelty, also has documented verbal thuggery associated with its participants. And, as we are all too aware, in modern times violent words can quickly become violent actions. It’s necessary when walking into a lion’s den to have security at your back.
Batta also certified that no non-governmental entity had a role in drafting the proposed rule that USDA recently submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for review.
As of today, the proposed rule has yet to be published, but it would be reasonable to presume that it would contain both elements of the PAST Act and address concerns voiced earlier by the Office of the Inspector General about failed industry inspection schemes and the resultant failure to fully enforce the HPA, which is the sole responsibility of the USDA/APHIS.
Now that Representative Rogers has his answers, it will be interesting to see exactly what he does with them. It can be anticipated, however, that he won’t be changing his mind or his attitude about full support for the big lick cabal at any time in the future. Instead, Batta’s measured response is more likely to simply add gasoline to an already burning fire.
This can be ascertained by the misleading comments made in an industry paper covering Batta’s response to Rogers, regarding the cost of inspections should the USDA, using a PAST Act- like system, take over the inspection program for all shows currently regulated under the HPA.
If these folks had taken the time to read what has been proposed by that legislation, including the how- it- would- work information sheets, they might discover that inspection costs could go down for both show managers and for exhibitors, but that’s a story for another day.
Just as with their selective reading of the Auburn Study, much quoted by people who have never read it, as well as those who ignore the parts that don't fit their narrative , it’s better to yell, “the sky is falling, the sky is falling” and rally the faithful, especially when there is a fundraising move now afoot to sue the federal government once again.
It’s also easier to divert attention away from the real problem, that the only regulation this group is interested in is self-regulation with no penalties for violators, while claiming that it’s going to cost the federal government another $5,000,000 to take full responsibility for the inspections and enforcement of the HPA. This was the original intent of the law, before the HIOs were foisted on the USDA by certain legislators.
If the removal of pads and chains should be included in the proposed rule, the whole inspection system would become both easier and more cost effective than it has ever been. It’s documented fact that the problems found with the big-lick horse, including verbal altercations, are not found at well attended flat- shod only shows like those put on by WHOA.
Wouldn’t you think that a person like the Honorable Mr. Rogers, a person in the appropriation’s business, should applaud rather than resist a future that looks like that?
Wouldn’t you think that after receiving the answer to his questions, a man who is supposedly a representative of all the people might at least start asking questions from the other side, getting a balanced view of the issue, rather than trying to appear to be interested in fairness, all the while keeping his weighty thumb on the big lick side of the ledger he controls?