WASHINGTON — IT can take years for a controversial bill to become a law.
Sometimes the path of least resistance is to slip an amendment into a catch-all piece of legislation, such as the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993. If the proposed provision is arcane enough, it may escape public notice and ride into the statute books on the coattails of more headline-grabbing measures.
That's the path freshman Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin has tried to take with his bill to ban the sale of Bovine Growth Hormone. BGH is genetically engineered to increase cows' milk production by 10 percent to 25 percent. Now under development by Monsanto Company, BGH is expected to be approved by the Federal Drug Administration later this year.
Opposition to BGH comes mainly from small, family-owned dairy farms in the Midwest and Northeast. They are concerned that the new technology advantages larger, more sophisticated agribusinesses.
"I am convinced that the widespread use of this drug could cripple the dairy economy," Senator Feingold says.
Feingold, whose state is full of small- dairy farmers, introduced legislation in April to impose an indefinite ban on the sale of BGH. But the bill did not go anywhere. So last month he managed to insert a one-year ban on BGH into Section 1105(b) of the Senate's 84-page budget- reconciliation bill. One congressional staff member says that measure was Feingold's price for backing the budget package. A spokesman for the senator denies this.
How does Feingold justify the inclusion of the BGH-ban into an act whose ostensible purpose is to achieve deficit-reduction? By boosting milk production, he argues, the hormones would force the federal government to buy more milk as part of its price-support program. That could cost the government $2 billion in 1995, the senator suggests, although there is no independent analysis to back up this estimate.
The BGH ban will be pushed in the House-Senate conference committee by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, who also represents many small-dairy farmers.
But House conferees, led by Reps. E. "Kika" de la Garza and Charles Stenholm, are expected to resist the measure fiercely. These Democrats are from Texas, home to many large-dairy farms that would benefit from BGH. They will argue, as one congressional staff member puts it, that it's a "bad precedent" to block a viable technology for political reasons.
The powerful American Farm Bureau Federation has weighed into the debate on their side. Backing the Feingold ban are, among others, the National Farmers Union and Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., an ice cream company based in Waterbury, Vt.