Canada Gets a Cold, Hard Lesson in U.S. Politics with Meat-Labelling Setback

Article excerpt

Canada gets rough lesson in US politics

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WASHINGTON - Canada got a painful lesson in American politics Friday as one of its major economic priorities was neglected on the messy floor of the legislative sausage-factory that is the U.S. Congress.

Hopes that a long-awaited farm bill might address a multibillion-dollar hit to Canadian livestock producers were officially extinguished, as President Barack Obama attended a ceremony in Michigan where he signed it into law.

"That's the way you should expect Washington to work," Obama said, crediting both parties for putting aside their rancour to deliver a sweeping bill.

"That's the way it should continue to work."

In fact, the bill's bumpy journey to the presidential pen is a classic case study in U.S. lawmaking -- that boisterous, unpredictable feast of movable alliances so strikingly different from the routine bill-churning seen in Canada's leader-controlled party system.

In the scramble toward a farm bill, Canadian hopes were buried by a few hostile senators, some pressure on key Democrats, and the anxieties of a Republican leadership eager to tally up some legislative accomplishments in a congressional election year.

Oh, and also, there was yawning indifference.

Among the reasons Canadian farmers lost out is not enough lawmakers cared about the cumbersome country-of-origin labelling requirement for meat (COOL) to turn it into a make-or-break negotiating point that threatened to undo a 959-page bill.

It's nothing personal, one of Canada's allies explains.

"To be honest with you -- U.S. lawmakers don't care what Canada thinks in this process," said Colin Woodall, who'd pushed for changes to COOL as the vice-president for government affairs of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

"That's just a reality of our political process. This was never seen as a Canadian ask, or a Canadian fix. And there's really not a scenario that would ever change that."

While American lawmakers were drafting the farm bill, Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz expressed hope it might ease labelling rules for beef, pork and poultry. An insistence on country labels, introduced in 2002 and enforced since 2008, is blamed for reducing Canadian meat exports to the U.S. by half.

The disappointment now has Canada and Mexico looking to retaliatory tariffs on a range of U.S. goods, with the next step in the process a scheduled hearing on Feb. 18 at the World Trade Organization.

So, what happened in the meantime?

For starters, seemingly all of Washington wanted a farm bill quickly. Obama had declared it one of his top priorities. And, with congressional mid-term elections looming a few months away, Republicans also saw it as a chance to dispel their reputation as obstructionists in an unproductive Congress.

Meat labels were never going to be the centrepiece of any legislation -- just a late-stage tack-on.

At its core, a U.S. farm bill is a contract between rural and urban lawmakers. It offers financial help for farmers and food stamps for the poor, bringing together a broad voting block to win congressional support.

In this particular fight, the main battle was over food stamps. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives sought deep cuts; Democrats, who control the Senate, didn't want any cuts at all. …