Sometimes it’s easy to figure out whether proposed legislation in Congress will affect the horse world, sometimes not so much.
The purpose of S.1176, the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011, introduced in the Senate on June 9, is clear. The unofficial summary at www.GovTrack.us says it all—"A bill to amend the Horse Protection Act to prohibit the shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling, or donation of horses and other equines to be slaughtered for human consumption, and for other purposes." If you oppose horse slaughter, this sounds like a bill you can get behind and support.
But what about H.R.1996 and companion bill S.1061, the "Government Litigation Savings Act?" From the title, it’s almost impossible to know what the bill is really about. But hardly anyone likes lawyers and saving money can’t be a bad thing with trillion-dollar deficits threatening the economy.
Or can it?
The GovTrack summary isn’t much help. According to the watchdog site, the bills would "amend Titles 5 and 28, United States Code, with respect to the award of fees and other expenses in cases brought against agencies of the United States, to require the Administrative Conference of the United States to compile, and make publicly available, certain data relating to the equal Access to Justice Act, and for other purposes."
It turns out that the "litigation savings" in H.R.1996 and S.1061 are realized through amendments to the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA") that will make it much more difficult for advocacy groups to sue the federal government for failures to follow the law. The EAJA was adopted by Congress during the 1980s to make it possible for individuals and advocacy groups to enforce federal law by filing lawsuits against the agencies responsible for upholding those laws. Legal action against the government is very expensive, and the EAJA authorized the reimbursement of attorney fees for successful litigation against the feds.
Think wild horses and the Bureau of Land Management. When the BLM makes a mess of things, which seems to happen with some regularity, a spate of lawsuits follows. An animal welfare group almost always is involved, either as a named plaintiff or in a supporting role, and the possibility of recovering the costs of litigation often is a factor in deciding whether to sue. The Government Litigation Savings Act may not kill all of these public interest lawsuits, but it will limit them in two important ways:
First, the legislation would limit recovery of attorney fees to a plaintiff that wins the lawsuit and also "has a direct and personal monetary interest in the civil action, including because of personal injury, property damage, or unpaid agency disbursement." This restriction rules out recovery by an organization objecting to some government action (or inaction) strictly on a public policy basis. Many wild horse advocacy groups likely would be affected by this restriction.
Second, the fee that can be awarded to a successful plaintiff is capped at $200,000 for a single lawsuit, or for more than three lawsuits filed in the same year. That might sound like a lot of money, but it’s a drop in the proverbial bucket when it comes to suing the government.
The bills were introduced in the House and Senate by legislators from Wyoming, where aggressive efforts to eliminate the wild wolf population are being stymied by legal action challenging the way the government is enforcing the Endangered Species Act. Nowhere in the legislation are wild horses (or wolves, for that matter) mentioned, but the legislation will make it much more difficult to rein in the BLM through court action.
Limiting the ability of individuals and advocacy groups to force the federal agencies to follow the law is not good public policy.