Politics & Policy

Animal Advocacy in the Age of Trump

(Dreamstime image: Branex)
If he’s serious about reforming Washington, one of his first targets should be Big Agriculture.

President-elect Donald Trump’s vow to “drain the swamp” could find unlikely support among animal-welfare activists. If he’s really serious about reforming Washington, one of his first bottom-feeding targets should be Big Ag, which has a powerful presence on Capitol Hill and a well-documented dark side.

Earlier this year, U.S. senators Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Cory Booker (D, N.J.), legislators from opposite ends of the political spectrum, introduced S. 3201, the Commodity Checkoff Program Improvement Act of 2016. It’s the latest in the years-long effort to reform “checkoff” programs — the government-sponsored agricultural promotion mechanisms that have come under intense scrutiny for corruption and illegal collusion with outside trade groups.

Despite clear legal prohibitions, D.C. lobbying leviathans including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council have repeatedly used “checkoff” dollars unlawfully to influence government policy and action in support of their Big Ag allies. These funds consist of mandatory fees paid by farmers all over America, many of whom see little benefit from the compulsory levy. NCBA is the primary contractor for beef-advertising efforts, receiving over 90 percent of the approximately $80 million collected annually in national checkoff fees, even though its membership comprises only 5 percent of America’s cattlemen.

Fixing “checkoff” is the kind of bipartisan measure that would please both fiscal conservatives and those who prioritize animal welfare. It would help small farmers in rust-belt states (where Trump so thoroughly trounced the opposition) who don’t benefit from Big Ag’s lobbying priorities. And eradicating a government drain on working-class farmers would be consistent with Republicans’ waste-cutting ethos and true to Trump’s promises of reforming Washington’s more parasitic tendencies.

Admission: I’m an animal advocate, and “checkoff” reform is the sort of silver lining for which I’m desperately hoping under a Trump presidency. Groups such as NCBA oppose many pro-animal reforms, even those well outside their purview. Yet, I’m also — paradoxically, you might suppose — a fiscally conservative red-state Republican. If the Venn diagram in your head fails to register the intersection, think again.

Trump’s white working-class base may be angry with the status quo, but middle- and lower-income Americans are no more accepting of animal cruelty than are their urban counterparts. Opposition to cruelty is a universal value. When agriculture tycoons use their resources to derail puppy-mill reforms — or when government bureaucrats use their influence to ban cruelty-free products from store shelves — Trump’s base doesn’t like it any more than Clinton voters do. Opponents of animal welfare like to paint advocates as disconnected metropolitan elites, but the fact is they come from all over America, and from all over the political and socioeconomic spectrum.

Changing consumer patterns have long indicated a preference for animal products derived from cruelty-free means.

The same day that Donald Trump was elected president, the beet-red state of Oklahoma, in a landslide, voted down a ballot proposal to enshrine a “right to farm” in the state constitution — a measure that would have prevented the state legislature from passing animal-welfare regulations, giving foreign mega-farms the ability to abuse animals with impunity. Oklahoma voters saw through it and stood against it. And why shouldn’t they?

More than one-third of American households have pets. Each year, the U.S. pet industry brings in about $55 billion. Most Americans believe that animals deserve protections. Animal welfare, in other words, is a populist concern.

Businesses know this. Changing consumer patterns have long indicated a preference for animal products derived from cruelty-free means. That’s why more than 100 of the nation’s largest food companies, including McDonald’s, Walmart, and Starbucks, have begun buying eggs from cage-free operations. It’s also why some of those same companies have begun announcing shifts to slower-growing broiler chickens. Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States has written extensively on the economic case for animal welfare, and it’s an argument that Donald Trump, as a businessman, should understand. When companies embrace animal welfare, they’ll see the benefits in their bottom lines.

#related#So, take heart: Animal advocacy can continue to flourish in the age of Trump. Advocates can achieve their goals by working with the Trump coalition to end entrenched Washington interests that use government funds to stifle reforms, advancing the economic case for animal welfare and, most importantly, recasting animal welfare for what it really is — an issue of central importance to all Americans.

As Ronald Reagan might put it: Mr. Trump, drain that swamp.

— John Connor Cleveland is a writer in Washington, D.C., and a policy adviser at the Humane Society of the United States.

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