Catfish swimming into trade debate

Given his long history with Vietnam, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been beating the drum against the catfish rule for years. The Navy veteran and former POW is now partnered with Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), two allies of the seafood industry. And Isakson used his position on the Senate Finance Committee to win assurances last month that an amendment will be allowed as part of the floor debate on the pending trade promotion authority bill.

“I am confident that this will be addressed on the Senate floor,” Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told Isakson in the April markup.

Hatch made good on the promise under an agreement reached Monday night, allowing the catfish amendment to be called up on the trade bill. What lies ahead is still uncertain, but the air is already thick with righteous rhetoric from pro-business editorial pages. And taking no chances, catfish’s Southern allies are calling in chits from commodity groups and threatening appropriations projects for those who stand against them.

The increased bullying appears driven by staff serving Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), a powerhouse on the Agriculture and Appropriations committees and the chief author of the catfish program. At 77, Cochran himself is the very image of the gentle, small-town Southern lawyer, but his aides have clearly felt free to put pressure on commodity groups and Isakson to fall in line.

The war of nerves began last month when a cooking tin of fried catfish was delivered by Cochran’s staff to Isakson’s office within days of the Finance markup on the trade bill. This was followed by not-so-subtle hints that future appropriations for projects important to Georgia’s ports and a major poultry research facility in the state could be affected down the road.

Cochran’s new chief of staff, Keith Heard, a veteran lobbyist on commodity issues, weighed in directly to press typically pro-trade agriculture groups to sign onto a May 4 letter opposing any amendment on the trade bill. “It was done under duress,” said one close observer. “Keith Heard put the hammer down.”