Let Taxpayers Off the Hook: End the USDA Catfish Inspection Program

David Williams

June 20, 2016

This article originally appeared on Real Clear Policy on June 12, 2016

With the continued bloat of the federal government, it’s not hard to find examples of redundancy. When the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, mistakes are made, efforts are duplicated, and taxpayers wind up paying the price. There is, perhaps, no better example of this phenomenon than a newly minted United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) catfish regulation program.

The program tasks USDA with regulating and inspecting domestic and imported Siluriformes fish, including catfish, before these products end up on retail shelves and restaurant menus — a reasonable and necessary aspiration for food safety. The problem? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) already inspects imported seafood. The best way to strengthen food safety is to streamline seafood inspection in one agency — the FDA — that already has the know-how to do the job, not by fracturing the process into two separate agency programs.

Fortunately, the Senate, led by Senators John McCain (R-AZ.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), took recent action to scrap the wasteful catfish inspection regime inside the USDA, leaving the fate of that program in the hands of the House of Representatives, and, ultimately, President Obama. Fiscally responsible Republicans in the House ought to lead the charge in putting the duplicative USDA program to bed.

The Government Accountability Office reported that the program will cost taxpayers $14 million a year — on top of the $20 million already spent over a period of four years. That $20 million spent resulted in no catfish being inspected. Budget experts estimate that repealing the USDA’s catfish program would save up to $170 million for taxpayers over the next decade. Writing about the USDA program, David Acheson, former chief medical offer for both the USDA and the FDA, was blunt: it “does not make the product safer.” Even President Obama has called for the program to be defunded so that government resources could be spent on areas of genuine risk.

The creation of this office is a classic case of crony protectionism. Imported catfish has been well-received by retailers, families, and professional chefs for years as a low-cost, healthy protein. But imported catfish has also caused segments of the domestic industry to experience unwelcome competition, thus prompting an orchestrated blitz against the product, aided by the media and cozy relationships in Congress.

Put simply, segments of the Southern catfish industry and one member of Congress, Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), wanted the duplicative program to be created in the first place and are using misleading information to support the continuation of what can best be described as an illegal trade barrier to imports. Now, they are asking leadership to avoid holding a vote on repeal in order to protect profits, actively trying to promote regulation through an earmark that was inserted in the Farm Bill eight years ago.

What’s worse, this effort on behalf of the USDA’s catfish program is an attempt to keep the House from doing its job by sweeping an opportunity to end a duplicative Federal program under the rug. This will does nothing but expand Federal bloat and promote duplicative government spending — not exactly conservative principles.

Speaker Paul Ryan might have been speaking of this very program when, in 2015, he said:

One of the dangers we face here and abroad is cronyism, and cronyism in this manifestation means big government and big business kind of grafting on to each other, uniting in a common cause to rig the rules, to write the rules for themselves, to erect barriers to entry against would-be competitors who are going to compete with them. Guess who loses? Consumers lose. Freedom loses. Opportunity loses. Entrepreneurship loses.

Simplicity, consolidation, and clarity of purpose breed effectiveness and efficiency. By contrast, duplicative and wasteful bureaucratic programs serve only to put strain on budgets and defy commonsense. If the USDA’s catfish inspection program is not dismantled, American taxpayers and consumers will end up footing an unnecessary bill.