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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Putting a Hold on Compassion

The confirmation process for federal appointments can be a long row to hoe, as we are now seeing with the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Sonia Sotomayor. But the agriculture metaphor is even more relevant for Cass Sunstein, the Harvard Law School professor and constitutional scholar who is President Obama’s pick to be regulatory czar, or more technically the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).

Cass-sunstein1
President Obama's pick for Administrator of
the Office of Information and Regulatory
Affairs, Cass Sunstein.

Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) put a hold on Sunstein’s confirmation—apparently at the urging of some agribusiness groups—because Sunstein’s long and distinguished legal career has included some writings about animal protection issues. He is the co-editor, for example, of Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, which examines the emerging field of animal law through a variety of perspectives (including articles from authors who argue vehemently both for and against animal protection reforms).

It’s an odd reason to hold up an important agency appointment, particularly because OIRA is not charged with developing regulations itself and it’s not the views of the OIRA Administrator that will drive public policy. OIRA doesn’t determine if regulations will be harsh or lenient, and it is not designed to perform a major ideological function, though of course there are political considerations that do come into play. Its job is to review what other agencies do—essentially, to perform a quality control function—making sure proper regulatory procedures are followed, cost-benefit analysis is done, and other steps are taken. 

If approved, Sunstein won’t be in a policy position governing farm animals, the environment, or anything else. It will be the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, and others that issue regulations on animal welfare issues, and then OIRA will make sure they went through the appropriate process. If Chambliss has a goal of making things harder for animal welfare advocates or easier for agribusiness interests, he’s picked the wrong nomination to block.

But more importantly, caring about animals, or having thoughtful opinions about regulating their use and treatment in various contexts, should not disqualify someone from holding federal office. Politicians should consider a compassionate concern for animals to be a personal and even political asset for candidates for major executive offices. Compassion and kindness to other creatures are mainstream values held by the best of all people, and it’s exactly what we should want to see in our public servants. Big Ag thinks it’s fine when its lobbyists and executives get agency posts, but just let one fellow who has said something serious on animal welfare be nominated and the artillery rolls out.

In the past, Chambliss has been helpful on animal welfare issues. For example, as Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he supported several provisions in last year’s Farm Bill that strengthened the federal law to combat animal fighting, barred the imports of puppies from foreign puppy mills, and upgraded the penalties for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. We thank him for that support. These kinds of legal changes are precisely why Americans need a regulatory czar like Cass Sunstein in charge of OIRA—to make sure the federal agencies properly implement regulations to enforce these new laws.

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