The sound you heard echoing through the corridors of power in Washington a couple of weeks ago was the back door slamming shut, ending a de facto ban on horse slaughter in the United States.

Closing that door was a good thing.

It was a good thing, but not for the reason you might think. Not because a roadblock to horse slaughter was eliminated, but because our Senators and Representatives now have to face the uncomfortable task of actually doing something. Congress has gotten a collective pass on the issue for the last few years, mainly because the failure to take action on slaughter legislation didn’t really matter. Domestic horse slaughter was a financial non-starter anyway. That’s not the case any longer, and here’s why.

Money makes the world go ‘round, in politics more than anywhere else, and each year Congress has the task of deciding who can spend what during the coming fiscal year. For several years, the annual appropriations bills included a specific ban on using United States Department of Agriculture funds for paying inspection personnel at equine slaughter facilities. The ban survived a court challenge, and slaughter opponents gained some temporary breathing room.

This year, however, the funding bill that doles out money through next September includes no restriction on funding these federal inspectors. When the appropriations bill was signed without the funding ban, many press reports erroneously proclaimed that horse slaughter was legal again. The practice never was illegal, only wildly unprofitable because horse meat could not be shipped across state lines or internationally without federal inspections.

There are as many opinions about the fate of horse slaughter as there are experts on the subject. Proponents suggest that there are investors waiting in the wings with stacks of money to fund slaughter facilities, while others predict that the on-again-off-again nature of annual appropriations will keep potential investors at bay, at least for a while.

The back door to a temporary slaughter ban is closed. It’s time for Congress to vote yea or nay.

Legislative Purgatory

Bills to ban horse slaughter for "human consumption, and for other purposes" have been introduced in both the Senate and the House of Representatives during the current legislative session, just as similar bills were introduced in past legislative sessions. Whether these bills actually represent the will of the people is something we’ll look at in detail next week.

The Senate version of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011 (S. 1176) was introduced on June 9 and was quickly referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Companion legislation (H.R. 2966) was introduced in the House on September 19, and it, too, was consigned to committee. The House Agriculture Committee later referred the bill to the Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry, adding another layer of bureaucracy to the mix.

If past performance is any indicator of current action, both bills will die a quiet death in committee, the same fate suffered by their anti-slaughter predecessors. The difference now is that the re-emergence of slaughter in this country is a real possibility. That might change when new appropriations legislation is debated a year from now, but whether a ban on USDA funds for inspectors will be reinstated next year—or ever—is anybody’s guess. This year’s bill proved that reliance on a back-door ban on slaughter is ill-advised.

If Congress ever is going shed its inertia and tackle the issue of horse slaughter, now would seem to be the time. What do you think? Will Congress seize the opportunity, or not?