WASHINGTON — Sen. Amy Klobuchar is known as a consensus-builder in D.C., someone who frequently praises the virtue of political opponents compromising on difficult issues. The two-term moderate Democratic senator has basically staked her political reputation on it.
But in the past few weeks, Klobuchar has had a difficult time finding common ground on one divisive issue developing on Capitol Hill: the labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients.
Both chambers of Congress have considered a law that would establish a voluntary national standard for the labeling of GMO foods, but would also ban states from enacting their own — potentially more stringent — labeling standards.
The bills come as states have considered, or are considering, legislation mandating that food products with GMO ingredients be labeled as such. Vermont passed such a law, which will take effect on July 1.
Some food giants, like Minneapolis-based General Mills, have gotten on board with labeling after fighting it. General Mills said it would label its products nationwide in order to comply with the Vermont law, though it says it’s still hoping Congress will pass a national standard.
That’s also the solution preferred by farmers, agri-business and food industry interests. They argue that a 50-state system with up to 50 different labels would confuse consumers and raise prices on food products.
But advocates, who maintain consumers have the right to know if food products contain GMO ingredients, believe the federal effort is a blatant attempt to stifle robust local labeling laws by establishing a weak national standard.
Unfortunately for Klobuchar, those two constituencies — agriculture interests, and the often liberal activists who antagonize them — are important in Minnesota politics, and have helped get her elected by large margins, twice. And as her two seemingly opposite votes on the issue — and the vocal reaction from both sides — show, finding consensus on this issue may evade even one of Washington’s most dedicated compromisers.
Klobuchar votes to advance the bill…
The latest Capitol Hill food fight began last summer, when the legislation, titled the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, was introduced to the House of Representatives. In July, that chamber approved the legislation by a relatively wide margin, with Democrats like Reps. Collin Peterson, Tim Walz, and Betty McCollum joining Republicans in the yes camp.
The bill’s backers marketed it as a win for those in favor of labeling GMOs. It does provide for a national labeling standard: lawmakers have proposed placing a QR code on food labels, which smartphones could scan to access GMO information, or a 1-800 number to call for information.
Many activists believe those standards are too weak, preferring instead a “one-second” standard: a label that instantly tells consumers if the food product in their hands contains GMO ingredients.
Whatever standard is established, though, would be voluntary. Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, chair of the Agriculture Committee, proposed a 70 percent participation rate within two years; an amendment was proposed to make the standard mandatory if that rate were not achieved, but it didn’t go anywhere.
Months after its passage in the House, the bill was taken up by the Senate. On March 1, the Agriculture Committee, upon which Klobuchar sits, voted to send the measure to the floor by a count of 14-6. Klobuchar was one of three of the committee’s nine Democrats who voted to advance the bill.
At the time, Klobuchar suggested that the bill wasn’t perfect, but said she she wanted to advance it so that the amendment process could play out, according to the Star Tribune, which also reported that her vote was hailed by prominent Minnesota food industry companies like Cargill and Land O’Lakes.
It didn’t take long for anti-GMO and right-to-know advocates to pounce.
“Amy Klobuchar moves to the DARK side on GMO labeling,” read a headline from Minnesota blogger Mary Turck, referencing critics’ preferred name for the bill — the Deny Americans the Right to Know Act.
“Klobuchar votes against Minnesota consumers,” read a press release from advocacy group Just Label It. “We are disappointed that Sen. Klobuchar did not stand up for the rights of states and consumers by rejecting this bad bill,” the statement said.
Some DFLers seized on the senator’s vote, which was cast hours before party members met across Minnesota to caucus for the presidential primary. More than 30 precinct caucuses voted to adopt a resolution condemning Klobuchar for her vote and urging her to reconsider her position.
According to Heather Flesland, who runs the advocacy group Right to Know Minnesota, activists mounted a robust effort to get Klobuchar to reconsider her position — one that paid off.
In the weeks after the Agriculture Committee’s vote, Flesland says her group coordinated hundreds of phone calls to Klobuchar’s D.C. and Minnesota offices, met with her staff, and organized a demonstration outside her Minneapolis office. “We had 50 people show up on short notice, with signs. We’ve done a lot to really let her know we’re watching.”
…then votes against considering the bill in the Senate
Those activists were encouraged last Wednesday, when the labeling law, attached to another piece of legislation as an amendment, was put to a cloture vote in the full Senate — a procedural measure that would allow debate and a passage vote to take place. Klobuchar voted against that, and the bill ultimately failed 48-49, requiring 60 votes to proceed. Only three Democrats voted to advance the measure.
The response from the food and ag industry, which had previously praised the votes of Klobuchar and her committee colleagues, ranged from outraged to terse.
The president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Zippy Duvall, told the trade publication AgriPulse, “to say we are angry with those senators who abandoned farmers and ranchers and turned their backs on rural America on this vote is an understatement… Their votes opposing this measure ignored science, threw our nation’s food system into disarray and undermined the public’s understanding of the many benefits of biotechnology in feeding a growing and hungry population.”
The Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation was more measured. In a statement to MinnPost, a spokesperson said that the group supports Congress’ GMO labeling legislation, and will continue to work with Minnesota’s elected representatives.
“Congress and the administration must act to protect interstate commerce… and ensure investment in future agricultural innovation so consumers are not left with confusing labels that will increase food costs and limit choice. We are hopeful that conversations are ongoing to find a common sense federal solution.”
Cargill, the Minnetonka-based agribusiness giant, struck a similar note. “We appreciate Senator Klobuchar’s support in the Agriculture Committee in advancing the bill through the legislative process,” company spokesman Mark Klein said. “Now we are watching as talks continue among lawmakers in hopes of finding a compromise.”
Activists were cautiously pleased, and interpreted Klobuchar’s more recent vote as a sign she is listening, after concern that she was going to align with the food and ag business on the issue. “We’re happy that she listened to constituents and voted no on cloture… She has been very connected to the other side, I would say,” Flesland says.
“There’s absolutely some hope she will continue to stand with the people, but our work is not done,” Flesland says. “It’s clear we have work to do to get the message across, why we want mandatory on-package labeling. [Klobuchar] is in an influential position in Washington, and we want her to be advocating for us.”
Reconciling two irreconcilable positions
In a statement to MinnPost, Klobuchar explained her rationale. “I voted in committee to advance the bill while stating at the time that it needed more consumer provisions,” she said.
“My vote last week was a procedural one, which simply meant that I believe that changes still need to be made to the bill. I remain hopeful that we can reach a compromise on a bill that avoids subjecting our entire food supply to a patchwork of state laws while creating a national uniform standard that works for consumers.”
Senators will likely continue to work behind the scenes to strike a satisfactory deal, and GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has the ability to bring up the legislation again.
It’s unclear what the compromise Klobuchar and others are after would look like. Activists hoping for a strong labeling standard are firm on the position that states have the prerogative to pass their own laws if their officials believe the federal system to be insufficient.
Four Democratic senators introduced a bill that would establish a national labeling framework while allowing states like Vermont to maintain their own laws.
That approach is likely a non-starter on the other side: the food and ag camp won’t accept a compromise that would continue what they call the “patchwork” of state labeling laws. Klobuchar’s statements have indicated she agrees with that standpoint — even using the “patchwork” language, which makes activists wary.
For a Democratic politician representing all of Minnesota, progressive activists and the food and ag industry are two important constituencies. The former, who comprise a major element of the DFL base, are deeply passionate, and clearly have an aptitude for organizing their troops and earning publicity. They could cause headaches for Klobuchar in the future.
At the same time, Klobuchar has proven popular with agribusiness companies and with farmers in the state. Since 2011, some of her top campaign contributors have been Minnesota food industry companies, such as Cargill and Land O’Lakes, and she has worked hard to cultivate a pro-agriculture profile. If farm advocates like Duvall are to be believed, they are not treating even this procedural vote lightly.
However the issue proceeds, it’s hard to imagine both camps being satisfied with whatever the Senate’s final product is — if it produces one at all.
According to Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College, it was a no-win situation for Klobuchar from the get-go. “This is a classic example of a senator caught between two sets of constituents, trying to satisfy both and instead offending both,” he says.
“Ultimately, Klobuchar has to make some enemies when deciding about this legislation — farm interests or environmentalists.”