WASHINGTON — Congress this year will deal with a host of profound issues: A confrontation over raising the nation's debt limit. Budget battles that will determine whether more cuts are made in government services. And the most ambitious attempt to overhaul the nation's immigration laws in nearly three decades.
But first: the Great Egg Debate.
A fight has broken out over how egg-laying hens should be treated — and specifically whether California can be blocked from requiring that eggs imported into the state be produced under voter-approved standards ensuring that the chickens can spread their wings.
This being Congress, the measure pushed by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, is not just about eggs. It has morphed into a dispute over the rights of the states versus those of the federal government, with a host of laws governing food and even animal welfare potentially in the balance.
It also carries the none-too-rare whiff of disdain for California, which is seen — again — as trying to throw elbows at the other 49 states. Chief among the supposed targets, of course, is Iowa, the top egg-producing state in the nation — the bulk of it from King's district, courtesy of its 42 million egg-laying hens.
King persuaded House Agriculture Committee colleagues to include in the proposed farm bill a prohibition on states imposing conditions on another state's production of agricultural goods. The bill is expected to come before the House this month.
King is taking aim at California's Proposition 2, a much-debated 2008 initiative that requires California farmers to give egg-laying birds enough room to stand and spread their wings. Although the measure does not specify cage size, industry officials believe it will require that hens be given about twice as much room and perhaps more than the current standard of 67 square inches per bird, about as much space as a sheet of letter paper, while the Humane Society of the United States contends it will effectively lead to cage-free production.
Two years after it passed, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation and added a requirement that, when the initiative takes effect in 2015, all eggs sold in the state come from farms that meet the California standards.
King and his allies contend that California is essentially setting a national standard for treatment of hens and stepping into Congress' authority to regulate interstate commerce.
Financially speaking, the stakes are huge. California is a lucrative egg market, with its residents consuming more than 9 billion eggs directly or in foods made with eggs last year, only 55 percent of which were produced in the state.
Ken Klippen, a consultant to Egg Farmers of America, which supports King's effort, contends that it would be so costly for out-of-state farmers to meet the California standards that they would walk away from the nation's most populous state.
"It gets right down to: Does California want eggs?" said Klippen, who recently took a copy of the U.S. Constitution to Rep. Jeff Denham's office so he could point to the power granted to Congress to regulate interstate commerce. Denham, a Republican from California's agriculture-producing Central Valley, opposes King's effort and called it a "dangerous federal power grab."
On the other hand, Arnie Riebli, president of the Association of California Egg Farmers, said King's measure would "probably mean the end of the egg industry in California" if only California farmers, and not their out-of-state competitors, were forced to comply with Proposition 2.
California lawmakers opposed to King's measure, in an effort to draw support from lawmakers from other states, contend it could nullify more than 150 state laws across the country, including a New Hampshire law defining maple syrup and a Georgia law designed to protect the state's Vidalia onion industry.
Opponents said it also could upend other animal welfare laws passed by states. "It's breathtaking in its sweep," said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. King's office disputed that the measure would have as broad an impact as opponents claim.
Politically, the measure has put some of its proponents in the position of advocating federal supremacy, contrary to their usual position that the national government should defer to the states.
Rep. Jared D. Huffman, D-Calif., who as an assemblyman wrote the 2010 legislation requiring out-of-state farms to comply with Proposition 2 in order to sell eggs in California, needled King on that front when he called his proposal "one of the most overreaching acts of federal government."
"And to have it come from a tea party conservative who rails against federal overreaching is beyond ironic," he added.
But King contends that when states impose rules on agricultural production in other states, they overstep their authority. "This isn't Congress imposing themselves upon decisions made in places like Oregon or Arizona or Colorado or California," he said. "This is Congress finally fixing a bad situation that grew out of some people that proffered a referendum in California that I think a lot of people regret."