Behind closed doors

EDITORIAL NOTEBOOK

November 12, 2005|By KAREN HOSLER

Angela Valianos is not a crazy-for-horses type. She doesn't own a horse; she doesn't even ride. She's actually afraid of horses. But when her job as a building contractor prompted a visit to a horse slaughterhouse near her Illinois home, Ms. Valianos was radicalized.

Numbing bolts to the brain at the start of the process often miss their mark. Panicked horses are then yanked up by a hind leg, suspended upside-down and sliced from end to end so they bleed out before carcasses are shipped overseas for gourmet dining. "I couldn't sleep for two weeks," Ms. Valianos recalled.

Thus was another foot soldier propelled four years ago into the far-flung ranks of tens of thousands of volunteer lobbyists demanding a federal ban on horse slaughter. Low on cash but brimming with passion, they wrote, they called, they e-mailed, they faxed, they pestered and, if necessary, they stalked federal lawmakers seeking votes for the ban.

And they won! In a seeming triumph worthy of Frank Capra, this ad hoc, shoestring operation took on the trade associations and the big-money interests and scored overwhelming roll call votes this summer in both the House and Senate.

Alas, Frank Capra's Washington exists only in the movies. In real life, a handful of lawmakers can go behind closed doors and undo the expressed intent of Congress - a cowardly maneuver for which voters rarely get an accounting. The ground shifted beneath the anti-slaughter crowd even while its e-mail network was still aglow with victory.

To be sure, the slaughter issue is more complicated than it may seem to animal rights advocates trying to rescue the 60,000 horses a year shuttled factory-style through three U.S. slaughterhouses in Illinois and Texas.

Much resistance to the ban comes from the beef industry, which fears sparing cattle might be the next cause. Many opponents of the ban prefer, though, to use the argument raised by the American Veterinary Medical Association, which warns that without slaughter as a cheap option for disposing of unwanted horses, they will be abandoned and abused.

Action on the slaughter ban was stopped cold when first proposed in the last Congress by Sen. John Ensign of Nevada and Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana. But this year, the House voted 267-160 to attach the slaughter ban to a must-pass farm spending bill.

The House ban would only last one year and be implemented by cutting off funds for federal meat inspectors. But the grassroots network turned eagerly toward the Senate.

"Sheer will and determination, and exasperating phone calls pleading with staff," Laura Pivonka of Montana said of the effort.

With little debate, the Senate voted 69-28 to approve the House provision. That should have settled the matter.

But Senator Landrieu was the only anti-slaughter advocate included on the committee assigned to write a final version of the farm spending bill. At the group's one meeting, she quickly discovered the fix was in.

Texas Republican Henry Bonilla, a leader of the panel, and Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana - an ally of the cattle ranchers - resisted Senator Landrieu's motion to approve the slaughter ban as passed.

Hours later, she learned the ban would be delayed and thus shrunk by four months. Cattle lobbyists say it can be circumvented entirely with privately paid meat inspectors.

Such a real-world civics lesson can be very discouraging for idealists. But horse advocates haven't given up, particularly not Ms. Valianos, 36, who's even more driven. After getting a permanent slaughter ban, she's aiming at rules that allow Congress to reject in secret something widely approved in public.

Fair warning to lawmakers so arrogant they think they can ignore populist appeals: The next target could be you.

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