Iowa Congressman Steve King is an interesting kind of conservative.
Last year, when a seemingly non-controversial amendment was attached to the 2012 Farm Bill making it a federal crime to attend or to bring a minor to an organized animal fighting event, King strenuously objected, lashing out at those who seek to "elevate animals above humans." Later, in the face of criticism for his apparent support of criminal dogfighting and cockfighting rings, he tried to explain himself by arguing that enactment and enforcement of laws against such activities should be left to the states, not the federal government.
King's backpedalled explanation may just sound like good old-fashioned conservative common sense. But this year, the congressman has a curiously different attitude about the federal government intruding on state prerogatives -- specifically, the state of California's prerogatives. When it comes to Congress trampling on the decision of California voters to reduce the suffering of animals instead of upon the attempts of criminals to profit from it, King, it would seem, is all about Big Government.
In May, King introduced an amendment to the 2013 Farm Bill that specifically seeks to neutralize California's Proposition 2, which was passed by voters in 2008 by 63 percent to 37 percent. In case you're unfamiliar with Prop 2, it's the measure that "(r)equires that calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely."
Two years after Prop 2's passage, Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill into law requiring that as of January 1, 2015, all eggs sold in California be produced under Prop 2's standards, no matter where they originate. Such a law was necessary, the governor reasoned, to prevent out-of-state farmers -- who, after Prop 2's rule change goes into effect a year and a half from now, will be subject to lower legal standards of animal welfare and, consequently, enjoy lower production costs -- from taking advantage of the compassion of California voters by undercutting California egg farmers with a flood of cheap, battery cage eggs.
The new rule was about basic fairness for California farmers: voters had chosen to establish minimal animal welfare standards for farmers operating within the state, and California lawmakers were helping to level the playing field to prevent egg farmers from being driven out of business by complying with the new law. "This bill is good for both California egg producers and animal welfare," Schwarzenegger wrote in a statement accompanying his signature.
But where Californians see common sense and compassion, King claims to see constitutional peril -- and constitutional redemption by way of his amendment. The "Protect Interstate Commerce Act," which survived passage of the overall bill in the House this summer, makes it illegal for a state (such as California) to prohibit or restrict the sale of an agricultural product (such as eggs) produced in another state (such as Iowa) based upon its method of production (such as highly constrictive battery cages).
"Current California law and referendum unconstitutionally regulates dramatically impacts (sic) producers from all over the nation," King wrote to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association after his amendment was passed by the House Agriculture Committee. "...(PICA) will ensure the federal government is able to put a halt to this unconstitutional activity by states and other political subdivisions."
Important-sounding words. But lurking behind King's lofty rhetoric about government jurisdictions is a crass and self-serving interest. By overriding the 2010 law prohibiting the sale in California of out-of-state eggs produced under conditions that fall short of Prop 2's standards, his amendment would create exactly the situation that state lawmakers and Governor Schwarzenegger sought to prevent: a flooding of the state's consumer market with cheap, inhumanely produced eggs that put California producers at a major competitive disadvantage to out-of-state agribusiness operations, many of them based in King's home state of Iowa.
In other words, the King Amendment is all about profits for Iowa Big Ag, at the tragic expense of hens, veal calves, sows, and California farmers. With huge corporate profits on the table, it appears that a politician like King isn't going to let conservative principles about defending state autonomy from federal overreach stand in the way.
Leighton Akio Woodhouse is a freelance journalist and co-founder of Dog Park Media, a creative firm in Los Angeles that specializes in documentary film production. This article was first published as an op-ed in The Hill.