How the bill to limit GMO labeling failed to get 60 votes

Jerry Hagstrom
The Hagstrom Report

There’s an old saying that success has 100 or even 1,000 fathers, but failure is an orphan.

That appeared to be the case last week in the U.S. Senate.

Not one senator spoke as a clerk announced that the Senate had failed to come up with the 60 votes to end debate on the bill on the labeling of genetically modified foods sponsored by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

The debate on the bill on Tuesday was remarkable for the absence of senators who supported it and the presence of opponents.

“In this deeply divided country, there is still one thing that almost all Americans regardless of political ideology agree on. Nearly nine in 10 Americans support labeling of genetically modified foods. It would be a tragedy to deny Americans their fundamental right to know what is in their food.” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., the author of a bill to require on-package labeling, may have had it right when he told reporters at a news conference today the reason those senators did not speak up is that they did not want to highlight their support for a bill that would stop a state’s right to label when some polls show that almost 90 percent of the American people want labeling.

The failure to get the 60 votes to invoke cloture on a bill that would ban state labeling laws and set up a voluntary federal system is the most dramatic defeat for the American agricultural establishment in decades. Almost all agricultural groups except the organic industry favored it, and last week even the National Farmers Union, which had favored mandatory labeling, switched to voluntary, although with a lot of dissent.

The question now is whether there will be a serious effort to write a bill that can get through the Senate before a Vermont labeling law goes into effect on July 1. Some lobbyists said today that they do want to reach a compromise but there is another theory that the Vermont law will have to go into effect before the food industry agrees to a compromise that would probably involved on package labeling of some sort.

About the vote

What was so remarkable was not just the defeat but the size of the defeat and the makeup of it. It wasn’t just liberal Democrats who refused to support it. The final vote was 48 yes to 49 no, including a last-minute switch by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., so that the bill could be brought up for reconsideration.

There were 97 senators voting because presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., were not present.

Sanders, running for the Democratic nomination, said in a statement from the campaign trail, “I am pleased that Congress stood up to the demands of Monsanto and other multi-national food industry corporations and rejected this outrageous bill. Today’s vote was a victory for the American people over corporate interests.”

“Sen. Roberts’ legislation violates the will of the people of Vermont and the United States who overwhelmingly believe that genetically modified food should be labeled,” Sanders said. “Republicans like to talk about states’ rights, but now they are attempting to preempt the laws of Vermont and other states that seek to label GMOs.”

Republican senators besides McConnell voting against the measure included Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski and Daniel Sullivan of Alaska, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and Dean Heller of Nevada.

Only three Democrats — Thomas Carper of Delaware, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota — voted for it.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who had written an amendment with Donnelly that formed the basis of changes that Roberts made to the bill after it passed out of committee, voted against it.

Roberts: ‘Where is their solution?’

In a news release after the vote, Roberts expressed his frustration about trying to come up with a solution.

“For more than a year, I have called on my colleagues across the aisle to come to the negotiating table to address the problems facing the nation’s marketplace should states continue to mandate confusing and differing biotechnology labeling standards,” Roberts said.

“I have repeatedly put forward proposals to protect farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers. I have been flexible and have compromised in order to address concerns about making information available to consumers.

“Simply put, if we are to have a solution, opponents of our bill must be willing to do the same.

“And yet opponents of this approach would not put forward a proposal for a vote. Why is that? Will their proposals pass the Senate or better yet, the House? In short, where is their solution?

“Without their own solution, opponents of this bill must favor the status quo,” Roberts said. “We cannot stand on the sidelines and risk increasing costs for consumers and further uncertainty in the marketplace for farmers and manufacturers.”

Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who voted against the bill, did not issue a statement after the vote, but before it noted that she and her staff had continued to work with Roberts “all the way until very late last night.”

Stabenow also said she still believes “it is possible for us to come together in a bipartisan solution.”

She said she could not support the Roberts bill because “Consumers want information about the food they eat. It’s as simple as that.” Providing a toll-free number where consumers can find out if food is genetically modified is “already being done,” she said.

The Roberts bill, Stabenow said, “lists things, but it’s things that are already being done so — not all, but many — enough — and then says, we’ll keep the status quo nationally, but we will preempt the states and citizens around the country from taking individual actions. I don’t support that.”

The failure to get cloture on the Roberts bill now raises the question of what role Merkley’s on-package labeling bill might play in a compromise.

Prospects in the House

Whether the House, which has already passed a bill banning state labels, would pass a bill with stronger labeling, is indeed a question.

Although a number of Republican senators voted against cloture, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, focused his remarks in a news release on the Democrats.

“Make no mistake, it’s not Republicans these senators have opposed, it’s the American farmer and rancher,” Conway said.

“Enough is enough. Americans are tired of viewing a broken system that refuses compromise at the behest of extreme views be it on the left or the right. These senators have refused to move from their position calling for a mandatory warning label for products of biotechnology. They have chosen to side with activists who have publicly acknowledged their objective is to stigmatize a safe and valuable tool for America’s farmers and ranchers.”

“Today does not need to be a bad day for American Agriculture,” Conaway concluded.

“I call on the Senate Agriculture Committee’s ranking member [Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.] to fulfill her responsibility by standing up for America’s farmers and ranchers. This issue cannot be resolved so long as it is viewed as a zero-sum game.”

Merkley: ‘One of the worst bills I have seen”

“This bill is one of the worst bills I have ever seen on the floor of the U.S. Senate,” Merkley said in a floor speech before the vote.

Merkley said the label “should pass the one-second test,” meaning that consumers should be able to determine quickly whether a food product contains genetically modified ingredients.

Noting at the news conference before the vote that the Roberts bill calls for disclosure through toll-free phone numbers, bar codes or on website, Merkley said that the phone number would require consumers to make a call, probably to India, and could result in them being put on hold.

A “QR” bar code would mean the consumer would have to have a smartphone and data account, and the label on the package would not indicate what the barcode is for, he said.

Merkley criticized the way the Senate had taken up the bill. He noted that Roberts filed the bill on Monday night and that bill was not the same one that had passed the Senate Agriculture Committee. (Roberts had added the provision calling for mandatory disclosure if companies do not label 70 percent of the foods in three years.)

“The bill on the floor was never considered in committee,” Merkley said.

McConnell has said he wanted to see regular order in the Senate while he is majority leader, but on this issue McConnell “put a bill on the floor that no one had ever seen, then instantly filed cloture so there would be only one day of debate” before the vote, Merkley said.

McConnell also “filled the amendment tree,” Merkley added.

And the day McConnell picked for debate was a Super Tuesday, he noted, when everyone including the media was paying attention to a number of presidential primary elections.

This process should not have been used on something as “fundamental” as stripping states of their power to label and stripping citizens of their rights, Merkley added.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said a group of high school students asked him today why the government would not want people to know what is in their food.

The provisions for labeling in the Roberts bill “amount to no labeling at all,” Tester said.

Merkley also noted that he had met with industry groups before he wrote his bill, and executives told him that their “number one priority is that there be a single standard, and that there be nothing on the front of the package to be intimidating or perceived as a warning, nothing pejorative.”

He added that he had written a bill that would require one federal standard with nothing on the front of the package and several options for back of the package labeling or for the Food and Drug Administration to determine a form of labeling.

“Brazil uses a T in a triangle, just something there on the ingredients panel,” Merkley said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was scheduled to appear at the news conference, but as ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee instead went to the White House for President Barack Obama’s nomination of District of Columbia appeals court judge Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court.

Merkley noted that, even though Leahy has supported the Vermont labeling law that would go into effect on July 1, Leahy supports his bill that would ban state labels and establish on-package labels.

Merkley also said that if McConnell filed a motion to reconsider, as expected, he would be happy to continue negotiations for a compromise solution.

In a statement after the vote on the bill on labeling genetically modified foods, Merkley praised the Senate for voting against cloture for what he called the “Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act:”

“Today is a victory for American consumers. Ordinary Americans stood up and fought back against special interests, and this vote is a testament to their efforts. I stand ready to work with my colleagues to find a path forward that provides a national standard with a consumer-friendly solution,” Merkley said.

“In this deeply divided country, there is still one thing that almost all Americans regardless of political ideology agree on. Nearly nine in 10 Americans support labeling of genetically modified foods. It would be a tragedy to deny Americans their fundamental right to know what is in their food,” he concluded.