Politics & Policy

Chris Christie’s Moral Dilemma

Mass-confinement farming
A bill on his desk forces him to choose between lobbyists and the humane treatment of animals.

By a vote of 52 to 13 in the state assembly, and 32 to 1 in the senate, New Jersey legislators last month passed a bill to ban a particular form of cruelty to pigs in factory farms, extending the smallest of mercies to the humblest of creatures. Senate Bill 998 prohibits “the confinement, in an enclosure, of any sow during gestation in a manner that prevents the sow from turning around freely, lying down, standing up, or fully extending the limbs of the animal.” Shall a pregnant pig be granted space enough to stretch her legs and turn around? The question awaits deliberations in the governor’s office, where, as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf writes, “a moral dilemma is unfolding.”

If Governor Chris Christie signs this bill into law, he has been warned, it won’t be taken well in Iowa. In the Hawkeye State, explains Friedersorf, “there are more than 20 million pigs, and pork producers who stand to lose a lot of money if forced to house them more humanely, and who get nervous when government regulators meddle in livestock practices. Signing the bill may well hurt Christie’s chances in the Iowa caucuses.” 

So the governor has been on the receiving end of a sustained lobbying effort by livestock interest groups, people whose idea of a cause worth fighting for is to force pigs into the smallest possible cages. They persuaded Governor Christie a year ago to veto a similar bill, on the grounds that questions of animal welfare are best left to the industry itself and to the relevant state regulatory agencies, and now the issue has come back, receiving more attention this time as a 2016 political story. There have been phone calls to Trenton from the National Pork Producers Council, and from Iowa governor Terry Branstad, among others. One hog farmer, Bill Tentinger of the Iowa Pork Producers Council, claims to have extracted the promise of another veto last month when the governor was visiting the state. We can guess what these conversations have been like because, apparently to keep the pressure on, the pork people have been telling reporters what they’ve been telling Governor Christie.

“I indicated to him,” says Mr. Tentinger, “that I could not understand how someone who has never stepped foot on a pig farm . . . could ever understand [the use of gestation crates] or why they should even have any opinion on the use of them.” So ignorant are critics of the gestation crates, he might have explained, that they haven’t heard that these two-foot-wide cages aren’t even called crates anymore. They have been rechristened “maternity pens,” one of many softer, more pleasing names that hog farmers have lately come up with to change how the public thinks about them, and maybe to change how the factory farmers think about themselves. It can’t be long before the toxic lagoons of manure outside these places are said to offer “lake views,” and slaughterhouses are called the “activity center.” A factory farmer in North Carolina insisted to me once that pigs could hardly be better off in gestation crates, “they love it,” and no doubt that’s what Mr. Tentinger told Governor Christie, hoping a Jersey guy would take his word for it and move on to the next subject.

This is a standard line in the hog industry, to complain about the impertinence of people who have never so much as seen a real-life pig farm, and yet dare to call hog farmers cruel. Who are we, outsiders to the ways of industrial agriculture, to offer “any opinion” at all on such practices as subjecting millions of sows to unrelieved confinement, in cages hardly bigger than their bodies? The posture only invites a question in reply, however, which I hope the governor’s advisers have thought to ask: Why have factory farmers, especially pork producers, made it their business in recent years to enact “ag-gag” laws designed precisely to prevent public awareness of their methods, succeeding in nine states? If they are so very eager for us to learn more, so that we can form accurate opinions about modern animal agriculture, why do they wish to criminalize the filming of even the most everyday practices at hog farms, and at industrial farms in general? 

All of their whining to Governor Christie about how misunderstood they are, how little the average American knows about what goes on at factory farms, would be more convincing if these very same people had not sought to make it a crime in Iowa, as of 2012, to produce, possess, or distribute any record of a “visual or audio experience occurring at [an] animal facility.” How are we supposed to “step foot on a pig farm,” as Mr. Tentinger puts it, when there are criminal penalties and barbed-wire fences to stop us?

A reasonable person, and above all a tough-minded former United States attorney, has to wonder just what they are afraid we might see. Why is filming the routine abuse of farm animals illegal in “ag-gag” states, but not the routine abuse itself? Here’s a suggestion for the pork lobby, in fact, that might just settle the whole unpleasant business, while helping Governor Christie to get these people off his back: Forget the phone calls, vague assurances, and attempts at cajolery. Just invite the man to come take a tour of a typical industrial hog farm, with the national press corps welcome too, so that the governor can decide your case on the merits, and so that we can all have a better look at exactly what it is you are defending.

#page#As he weighs a decision, due by December 1, Governor Christie’s prosecutorial instincts will serve him well here, listening to the various euphemisms, evasions, and attempts at concealment of fact that form the case for vetoing this simple reform to correct an obvious wrong — never mind the 90 percent or so of New Jersey voters who say they support the bill. It is a case so filled with falsehood and nonsense as to warrant the contempt of any serious political leader, Republican or Democrat, even if one had only passing concern for the welfare of farm animals. Essentially, it asks the governor — as it asks all of us, in the decisions we make — to believe that things are not as they appear, and that what looks at first glance to be unconscionable abuse is actually animal husbandry at its best. 

Living creatures, every bit as intelligent and sensitive as dogs, lie trapped by the millions in a sunless hell of metal and concrete, for years unable to walk or turn around, afforded not even straw to lie on — because even that little kindness, like giving the pigs extra space, would throw off the miserly economics of the enterprise. All of this, we are emphatically assured, is right and necessary — not only for the sake of more cost-efficient production, holding down the all-important price of bacon, but also for the benefit of the animals themselves. Does anybody really believe this, even the people who insist that it is true?

Here as elsewhere, it only compounds the sin when a cold-hearted thing is done “for their own good.” Governor Christie heard a version of this line, too, from Governor Branstad, as related by the Associated Press: “‘I called him to tell him how bad I thought it would be and how the people that are involved in pork production, that really understand this, feel this would be very bad,’ said Branstad, who argued the crates provide protection to baby pigs that could be crushed to death by older pigs that fall over.”

The New Jersey bill doesn’t actually apply to the separate farrowing crates where the pigs give birth. That objection is just a diversion. And the suggestion that any feature of this ruthless business is designed to afford “protection” to the pigs, much less to the babies, is perverse. Normal, healthy mother pigs, for example, do not after birth fall over and crush their young — as if they were all just naturally clumsy. These are not exactly normal, healthy animals we’re talking about, however, after their interminable, pain-inflicting confinement in the gestation crates, among many other travails. Subject a sow to hyper-intensive breeding so that she is grossly larger than nature intended, fill her with steroids to accelerate growth still more, withhold anything resembling humane veterinary care, and through it all deny the creature her every natural need and desire, even the need to move and turn around — and, yes, she is not going to be quite herself. Just spare us this talk of how factory farmers are “protecting” the young from their mothers, when what’s needed here is protection of all these creatures from the whole wretched system.

Being immobilized for all of their existence, lying and living in their own urine and excrement, the sows are sick, sore, atrophied, usually lame, crazed or broken in spirit, and kept alive in these torments only by a massive and reckless use of steroids. The confinement of the sows, presented in terms of solicitude for the piglets, is among the causes of the welfare problem it purports to solve. And the piglets in any case are taken from their mothers in short order to begin their own lives of merciless confinement, mutilation, privation, and fear, in a process, from birth to slaughter, utterly devoid of human compassion.

I saw all of this myself once on a visit to a mass-confinement hog farm in North Carolina, the kind of investigative tour that would now be a crime in Iowa, taking in scenes that anyone not numbed to the sight of animal suffering would find abhorrent and deeply disturbing. (Let’s just say that Joni Ernst’s celebrated campaign ad, shot in a sunny, straw-filled showcase instead of a typical industrial hog farm, would have lost its sassy charm had the backdrop been the real thing.) The particular issue of the crates may seem a small matter, these extra few inches for a lowly pig, so miserable already and doomed to a nightmarish end. But that’s not a thought I’d stress if I were one of those guys from the National Pork Producers Council talking to Governor Christie. It only draws attention to the sheer pettiness, the unfeeling, unyielding, unchristian spirit, of anyone who would refuse so minimal a comfort to an afflicted animal.  

If you and I made a living doing things like this to weak and defenseless creatures, we’d want to steer clear of legal scrutiny too, protesting against intrusions into our private commercial pursuits. But the argument that the bill on Governor Christie’s desk would constitute an undue regulatory burden on hog farmers, by directing the state board of agriculture to write new rules forbidding gestation crates, falls apart the moment you pause to think about it. 

In New Jersey and everywhere else, the industry’s preference is always to leave matters of animal welfare to the various agricultural boards and commissions — stocked, invariably, with corporate and veterinary “experts” formerly in the hire of the companies they regulate. “Overregulation,” as they employ the term in agribusiness circles, is the opposite of what we usually mean by capricious rulemaking and unaccountable bureaucracies. What the industry really resents here is direct intervention by the elected representatives of the people, instructing regulators as to proper and humane husbandry. What they resist as an unwarranted regulatory burden, most of us would regard as democracy in action, and no more as a needless burden on corporate conduct than ordinary cruelty statues are a burden on our personal conduct.  

#page#It’s never a good sign when an industry’s agenda is to keep the unelected rule-makers in control and to keep the elected ones out of it. For factory farmers, the big problem is that whenever legislatures, governors, or, by statewide referendum, the voters themselves start shaping public policy, the industry nearly always loses, and not just in states like New Jersey but in more rural states as well. Legislative majorities in Michigan and Colorado have voted to rid their states of gestation crates. Where bans have passed by ballot initiative in Florida, Arizona, and California, the majorities were decisive, and extended into all but a few rural counties — another fact that Governor Christie’s callers have likely failed to mention, in all of their warnings about upsetting Iowa voters.

The sponsor of the New Jersey bill, Democratic Senator Ray Lesniak, has framed the question in stark terms for the governor: “I’ve said Governor Christie cares more about the first Republican presidential caucus in Iowa, headquarters of the National Pork Producers Council, than the suffering of mother pigs. Governor Christie, prove me wrong, sign my legislation and put an end to this cruel practice in New Jersey.”

This is putting it unfairly, in the case of a reforming governor who has shown nothing if not backbone these past five years, mostly by doing hard things that conventional wisdom at the time said would hurt him politically. Indeed, though Senator Lesniak may not appreciate the comparison, perhaps it would help if the governor noted a resemblance between the entrenched powers he has challenged in New Jersey — sanctimonious public-sector unions and the like — and the entrenched powers now trying to cultivate him in Iowa. With an air of presumption he should recognize, they think they run the show in presidential politics, deciding who advances and who doesn’t. In reality, the pork people and all the rest of them speak only for themselves and their own selfish purposes, and all it takes to put them in their place is a simple, blunt “no.” They’re special pleaders of the worst kind, accustomed to having their way no matter what, another big, arrogant, overindulged, and overrated interest group just waiting for someone to call them out. 

Pat Buchanan told me once that when he campaigned in Iowa years ago, one of the most common questions he heard was “What are you going to do about these factory farms?” All the more in farming communities, people were troubled back then by the cruelty, the filthy air, the toxic runoff, the damage to land and water, the dangers to public health, and behind it all the corrupting political influence of the big livestock companies. Not only in Iowa were those worries common, but also in Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah, and everywhere else that mass-confinement farming was spreading. 

That was back in 1996. And though you would never know it from national political reporting on Iowa, which seldom ranges beyond candidate photo ops at the steak fry or state fair, good men and women in all those states are still deeply uneasy with what has become of animal agriculture. Everything about factory farming, by every environmental or moral measure, is worse, which helps explain a survey on the New Jersey issue reported by the Des Moines Register: “A September poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research showed that, among 625 likely Iowa Republican caucus voters, only 2 percent said they would look upon Christie less favorably if he signed the gestation crate bill, and 37 percent said they’d look upon him more favorably.” 

Anyone familiar with the governor’s manner of doing business knows that he will make the call by his own lights, and not because one poll says this or another says that. The point here is that the far greater number of Iowans who would support and respect a decision to sign the bill, as compared to the 2 percent who won’t like it, are on the right side of a worthy and winning issue. They are the mainstream, and national candidates, Republican or Democrat, who listen only to the others are buying in with the wrong crowd. 

So let the factory-farming lobby find, as I’ll wager they will, that all their calls and pressure tactics have been wasted. It is not a moral dilemma at all that confronts Mr. Christie, some dreaded quandary to be avoided or agonized over as 2016 draws near. It is a moral opportunity to be welcomed, a chance to speak for the majority of Americans about matters that weigh on our conscience, to show the gracious and big-hearted instincts we look for in a president, and to remind Republicans, lest anyone forget, that the governor of New Jersey is not a man to be pushed around.

— Matthew Scully, a former New Jersey resident, has been a speechwriter in each of the last six presidential general-election campaigns and was a special assistant and senior speechwriter to President George W. Bush. He is the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.

Matthew Scully, a former literary editor of National Review, served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and for the late Pennsylvania governor Robert P. Casey.

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