Thursday, April 13, 2006

Of The Commerce Clause, Molly Ivins and Anal Leakage

Yeah, I realize those last two are kind of redundant.

So per usual, we find Molly Ivins telling only half the story, and filling in the rest with willful ignorance (temporary link - check the archives after a couple days):

We need to keep up with the daily drip, that endless succession of special favors for special interests performed by Congress -

NOTE: If it's a law that helps an industry - even a far-flung and important one like the food industry - then it's a "special favor" to those eeeeeevil corporations. If it's a law that, say, redefines "illegal immigrants" as "legal immigrants" with visions of a large new voting bloc, border security be damned, then it's "justice".

- or we'll never figure out how we got so far behind the eight ball. While the top Bushies lunge about test-driving new wars (great idea -- the one we're having is a bummer, so let's start another!), Congress just keeps right on cranking out those corporate goodies.

Earlier this month, the House effectively repealed more than 200 state food safety and public health protections. Say, when was the last time you enjoyed a little touch of food poisoning?

Coming soon to a stomach near you. What was really impressive about H.R. 4167, the "National Uniformity for Food Act," is that it was passed without a public hearing. "The House is trampling crucial health safeguards in every state without so much as a single public hearing," said Erik Olson, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This just proves the old adage, 'Money talks.' The food industry spared no expense to ensure passage."

Thirty-nine attorneys general, plus health, consumer and environmental groups, are opposing the law. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the food industry has spent more than $81 million on campaign contributions to members of Congress since 2000.

That's because thirty-nine attorneys general know what their job is: defending the laws of their respective states. The other 11 states, presumably have no stake in this.

But that's irrelevant. What is relevant is this:

This law isn't anywhere near as scary as the cornpone-"there's a looming social security crisis - oh wait, now it's gone"-Texas-Tub-O'-Lard would have you believe:

The bill would automatically override any state measure that is stronger than federal law, the opposite of what a sensible law would do. The NRDC says state laws protecting consumers from chemical additives, bacteria and ingredients that can trigger allergic reactions would be barred, and that includes alerts about chemical contamination in fish, health protection standards for milk and eggs, and warnings about chemicals or toxins such as arsenic, mercury and lead. Happy eating, all.

Let's go to the bill (something Molly almost certainly didn't do). The relevant part is here:

sections (c) and (d), no State or political subdivision of a State may, directly or indirectly, establish or continue in effect under any authority any notification requirement for a food that provides for a warning concerning the safety of the food, or any component or package of the food

Wow! Molly is right! This amendment bars states from requiring warning labels on food.

Oh, hang on a second. I stopped reading too soon. There's more:

unless such a notification requirement has been prescribed under the authority of this Act and the State or political subdivision notification requirement is identical to the notification requirement prescribed under the authority of this Act.

Ahhhhhhhhhhh. What this law does is set up a uniform system of food warning labels under federal auspices rather than a disparate patchwork of state regulations.

That's just common sense.

Which is why the idea is anathema to Molly Ivins.

Y'see, Congress has the power to regulate interstate commerce. At the risk of appearing to appeal to authority, I quote the Constitution, Art. I, sec. 8:

The Congress shall have Power...To regulate Commerce...among the several States[.]

Now before y'all stop reading - especially all you attorneys out there who suffered through several weeks of cases involving "filled" milk, tandem trailers and ferry boats - I'll just say that the Commerce Clause has been interpreted very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very broadly by the courts. This is generally due to FDR's Supreme Court appointees - selected for this very reason, since much of his New Deal initiatives would have been held unconstitutional under a narrower interpretation of the commerce clause. If you can boil it down to a monolithic left vs. right sort of thing, you could say that the left favors this broad interpretation and a frequent exercise of it by Congress (see the New Deal and much other later legislation) while the states'-rights favoring conservative wing balks at it (eg the mandatory 55 mph speed limit).

So reread what Molly Ivins wrote again:

The bill would automatically override any state measure that is stronger than federal law, the opposite of what a sensible law would do.

Welcome to the right side of the aisle, Molly!

Er, no. She just clumsily stumbled into it because of her trademark ignorance about, well, everything.

The point of the commerce clause, was to facilitate efficiency. It can be costly and confusing for firms that trade in several different states to keep track of and comply with all kinds of different and disparate regulations. The best way to avoid the unnecessary inefficiencies caused by this is through a uniform system of regulations that apply across borders, which can most easily be accomplished at the federal level. And while this country is populated with peoples of diverse backgrounds, cultures and mores, there are many more things that we have in common.

One of those things is our biologically innate intolerance for mercury poisoning.

And that's why the Constitution has the commerce clause. Here's an illustration (partially made up, partially true):

Remember Olestra? Olestra (not sure of the spelling) was this wonderful fat substitute that was "healthier" than the fats normally found in your average potato chip. When it debuted, it was hailed as a revolutionary breakthrough - now you could eat many many more potato chips before you needed to get a triple bypass. Snack food manufacturers rushed to get their new "healthier" potato chips to market.

Oh, there was one drawback. It turned out that Olestra caused in some people some rather, um unpleasant side effects. Side effects about which Ryan Rhodes, if he were blogging at the time, would have written a 47-part series. If you know what I mean.

So states started passing laws requiring warning labels on Olestra-laden potato chips, so as to mitigate the populace's potential embarrassment.

New York required manufacturers to a affix a warning label to the package, under penalty of a substantial fine, which must read:

WARNING: OLESTRA HAS BEEN KNOWN TO CAUSE ANAL LEAKAGE.

California passed a law that required, under pain of substantial fines, all Olestra snacks to bear a warning label in all caps 20-point bold font that must read (in 7 different languages):

WARNING: ANAL LEAKAGE! DO NOT EAT UNLESS YOU ARE NEAR A BATHROOM! ANAL LEAKAGE!

Florida likewise passed an Olestra warning label law. Florida's law required a four inch square box on the front of the package with the text in bold, red 40 point font with a warning message to read:

THIS PRODUCT WILL CAUSE ANAL LEAKAGE WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT! DO NOT INGEST UNLESS YOU ARE WEARING DEPENDS UNDERGARMENTS!

Minnesota passed a law that required a warning label on all Olestra snacks to read:

THE ATTORNEY GENERAL HAS DETERMINED THAT THIS PRODUCT WAS MADE BY AN EVIL CORPORATION THAT SPENT MILLIONS OF DOLLARS TO BRAINWASH YOU INTO THINKING YOU NEED TO BUY IT. WE UNDERSTAND YOUR URGE TO EAT SALTY ANAL-LEAKAGE-INDUCING SNACK FOODS IS NOT YOUR FAULT. INSTEAD OF SPENDING YOUR MONEY TO ENRICH A BUNCH OF FAT CATS, WHY DON'T YOU JUST GO VOTE FOR I$D 196's LATEST LEVY REFERENDUM?

Not to mention 46 other completely different variations, all carrying a fine for noncompliance.

Do you see how it might be a tad bit difficult and really expensive for a company that sells its product in all 50 states? And that added expense not only affects "fat cat" CEOs, but also the consumers, the employees of the producer, and the shareholders. And in many instances those latter three are one in the same.

Do you see how it makes a whole lot of sense to regulate this area at the national level?

Molly Ivins doesn't. She just jerks her knee, sets off the Panic Alarms, "informs" herself only with sources that confirm her ill-conceived thesis ("those dag-gum 'publican's are evil and greedy cowpokes who want your loved ones to die from mercury-polluted fish!"), and has a rhetorical spastic colon.

That's why she's the Anal Leakage of opinion "journalism."

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