The way Congress’ chief watchdog describes it, the government’s plan to set up a new catfish inspection process is one of the clearest examples of wasteful spending in the federal budget.
Yet killing the catfish inspection program is proving to be tremendously difficult for all the usual Washington reasons: a powerful patron in Congress, a weak administration controlling the agencies and a pliant Congress happy to limp into the next election on autopilot.
The cost-cutters did win a round last week when deficit-hawk Republicans linked arms with Democrats who were eager to find places to trim the budget. Combined, they voted 55-43 to stop the duplicate catfish inspection by the Food Safety and Inspection Service and shift it back to the Food and Drug Administration, which had been handling it for years.
But victory for the cost-cutters is anything but assured. The House must still vote, and then the change must survive President Obama’s veto pen.
The amount of money at stake isn’t much — somewhere south of $15 million a year — but it sparked a whale of a fight on the Senate floor, where Republicans questioned their party colleagues’ commitment to conservative principles.
“Don’t come to the floor and call yourself a fiscal conservative,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, thundered to his high-spending colleagues. “Vote however you want, but don’t come back to the floor when you see a duplicative or wasteful program and say you are all for saving the taxpayers’ dollars, because you are voting to spend $14 million of the taxpayers’ dollars on a duplicative and unnecessary program.”
The Government Accountability Office, the top federal watchdog, has warned no fewer than 10 times against moving catfish inspections from the FDA to the Food Safety and Inspection Service. That is about as insistent as the normally reticent agency gets.
GAO analysts say shifting the inspection means the Food Safety and Inspection Service will be sending inspectors to the same facilities that FDA inspectors are already checking, at an additional cost of $14 million a year.
The Obama administration, which proposed the shift based on a 2008 instruction from Congress, counters that the cost will be only $1.1 million a year. Sen. Roger F. Wicker, Mississippi Republican, said that is a reasonable price to protect Americans from “deadly” contaminants found in imported fish.
Analysts say what’s really at stake is the $250-million-a-year catfish industry in Mississippi and Alabama, which is struggling to compete with a surge of catfish-type products from overseas. Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, China have surged exports to the U.S., cutting domestic production nearly in half over the past decade as some consumers prefer the foreign fish’s appearance, taste and lower price.
Deep South Republicans have pushed back by passing legislation prohibiting some Vietnamese fish from being labeled catfish. The U.S. then accused Vietnam of a trade violation and imposed anti-dumping duties on some Vietnamese fish.
In 2008, Congress ordered the administration to shift inspections from the FDA to the Food Safety and Inspection Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of its farm bill, hoping for more stringent inspections that would chase the Vietnamese products out of the market.
After years of delay, the Obama administration followed through, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service began conducting reviews this year.
Deep South Republicans said the program already has paid benefits by catching as many suspect shipments in two weeks as the FDA stopped in the previous two years.
“We have been proven right. The FDA’s inspection regime was inadequate,” said Sen. Thad Cochran, Mississippi Republican.
The GAO is unconvinced. It says the difference in inspections isn’t great and that inspectors from two agencies are visiting the same processing plants — the Food Safety and Inspection Service to look at catfish and the FDA to look at all other seafood. The investigators called that “an inefficient use of taxpayer funds and a duplication of activities.”
The Senate on Wednesday sided with the GAO, with 27 Republicans, 27 Democrats and one liberal independent voting for the cost-cutting. Still, 26 Republicans and 17 Democrats voted to continue the duplication, defying their own investigators’ conclusions.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, voted for the duplication, even though he signed a letter in 2009 opposing the shift and saying it could lead to a trade war. His spokesman didn’t respond to messages seeking comment on what changed the senator’s mind.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who also voted for the duplication, said the Kentucky Republican didn’t comment on his vote.
It’s possible many lawmakers don’t want to run afoul of Mr. Cochran of Mississippi, the Appropriations Committee chairman who wields enormous power in deciding which states’ projects are funded each year. Of the committee’s 30 members, 20 voted for the wasteful spending, including Mr. McConnell and Mr. Durbin.
Even Republicans with long records of budget vigilance voted for the duplication.
Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who served as head of the White House budget office under President George W. Bush, was swayed by concerns about public health risks from Chinese and Vietnamese catfish, a spokesman said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who has blasted Democrats in recent weeks for refusing to find cuts to pay for the Zika virus emergency, also backed the spending.
Mr. Sessions said the catfish inspections have already snared two Vietnamese shipments in recent weeks that he said were “contaminated by dangerous carcinogens.”
“Under the FDA program, which inspected less than 0.2 percent of imported catfishlike species, these contaminated fish likely would have ended up on American dinner tables, making people seriously ill or worse,” Mr. Sessions said.
He said the FDA didn’t manage to spot a single tainted shipment from Vietnam last year.
The legislation appeared to confound three Democrats, who cast votes Tuesday in opposition to the duplicative spending. They reversed themselves Wednesday and voted for it.
Spokespeople for the three — Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii and Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland — didn’t return messages asking about their flips.