Wall Street Journal Catfish Editorial: “This should be an easy call”

A Chance for a Catfish Vote

Failing to repeal would set up a WTO showdown that the U.S. could lose.

July 6, 2016 3:52 p.m. ET

Will the U.S. House of Representatives get to vote this summer on repealing the notorious catfish program that has become a byword for Washington waste and protectionism? This should be an easy call, especially after the Senate voted for repeal in May, but a group of Southern lawmakers are pressuring Speaker Paul Ryan to keep the issue off the floor. Even for Congress in an election year, this is an especially fishy case of special-interest pleading.

For 15 years Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran has led Congress in throwing up regulatory barriers against catfish imports, mostly from Vietnam, that compete with catfish farmed in the Mississippi Delta. These efforts culminated in March, when catfish oversight shifted from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates all other fish, to the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates meat and poultry. This made no public-health or fiscal sense, but that wasn’t the point.

“No one was concerned about the safety of catfish until Southern catfish interests determined the USDA regulatory system would effectively block its imported competition at the border,” former USDA and FDA food-safety czar David Acheson wrote in Forbes last month. “This restriction is based on regulatory differences between USDA and FDA that don’t make the product safer, just more difficult to import.”

Import restrictions mean higher prices at restaurants and stores for what is now America’s sixth-favorite fish, ahead of cod and crab. Where FDA catfish inspections cost $700,000 a year, taxpayers now have to spend $14 million a year on a USDA program that also cost $20 million to start. No wonder the Government Accountability Office has slammed it 10 times, saying repeal would “save taxpayers millions of dollars annually without affecting the safety of catfish intended for human consumption.”

Vietnam may sue at the World Trade Organization, where it can expect to win. That would empower it and other affected countries, such as China, to retaliate against U.S. exports of soy, meat and other products that unlike catfish are pillars of the U.S. farm economy.

At least 195 House Members, including a majority of Republicans, have written to Mr. Ryan asking for a vote on repeal. But 42 others, mostly Southern Republicans, are pushing back with anecdotal claims about unsafe or uninspected fish. But that’s an argument for routine inspections, not protectionism and bureaucratic legerdemain.

The GOP’s catfish holdouts argue privately that a repeal vote would cause needless party tension in an already tough election year. But a majority of Republicans don’t see it that way, and for good reason. Repealing the catfish boondoggle is basic hygiene for a party that still claims to support free markets, responsible regulation and fiscal restraint.