- - Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ahandful of congressmen are trying to cut wasteful spending, but certain bottom feeders in Congress stand in the way. Everybody’s tax dollars, “invested” in redundant and useless government programs, continue to slip down the drain.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) catalogs the “fragmentation, overlap and duplication” in a 218-page report outlining how this happens. One of these redundant and useless programs is the Department of Agriculture's Office of Catfish Inspection, which is very good at turning catfish into pork.

The GAO has panned this scheme no fewer than six times over the years, calling for the elimination of the agency, which has cost $170 million over 10 years.

The catfish industry is already regulated and inspected by another federal bureaucracy, the Food and Drug Administration. It shouldn’t take two agencies and millions of dollars to poke and prod a few whiskered fish whizzing past on a conveyor belt on their way to the nation’s frying pans. No one would notice if the Department of Agriculture got out of the catfish-inspection business entirely.

Eliminating catfish inspection by the department, says the GAO, “would avoid duplication of federal programs and save taxpayers millions of dollars annually without affecting the safety of catfish intended for human consumption.”

Some congressmen have been listening. A bipartisan group of House and Senate members has been trying to repeal the farm-bill provision that created the catfish office because it threatens trade relations with certain other countries.

“The program would create a discriminatory de facto ban on exports from key trading partners and expose us to retaliation,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, observed two years ago. ” … We are aware that no scientific data that catfish, imported or domestic, pose any greater food-safety risk than other farmed seafood — all of which will remain under [Food and Drug Administration] regulation.”

A citizen might think eliminating the office would be easy. Prominent members of Congress on both sides of the aisle want to get rid of it, and defenders of the program have weak arguments. Yet the program survives, no matter how hard certain legislators work to kill it. One powerful senator stands in the way.

Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who is fighting for survival in a hotly contested Republican primary this spring, keeps the catfish-inspection program alive. His defense has nothing to do with food safety and everything to do with pork, politics and protectionism. The program is a barrier to imported fish, which in turn protects important Mississippi catfish producers from competitors in other countries, particularly Vietnam.

Mr. Cochran thinks the Agriculture Department is not inspecting enough. “A lot of the aquaculture producers in Mississippi and around the country believe this law has not been aggressively implemented,” he says. “They are frustrated, and they want to know if the USDA has a plan to try to put action behind the words in the farm-bill law.”

Next week, on the deadline for filing federal income-tax returns, Americans might remember what they’re paying for in this fish story, and why. When fish go bad, it’s a bad day for everyone in the kitchen.