The president of the US Humane Society explains in a Sheboygan Press column:
By Wayne Pacelle
While National Football League star Michael Vick's career and freedom are threatened by his alleged involvement in illegal dogfighting, he caught at least one major break in the process.
Little did he know, but Vick got a great assist — the equivalent of some tremendous pass protection on the field — from U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls.
Sensenbrenner has emerged in recent years as one of the leading opponents of animal welfare in Congress. Thanks to Sensenbrenner, the penalties in the federal law against animal fighting — the core federal law that prosecutors put to use in the indictment — were kept as misdemeanors during the period when the crimes Vick is charged with took place.
The idea of upgrading penalties to a felony for violations of the federal animal fighting law — which bans interstate or foreign commerce in fighting animals — had active support in Congress for the past six years. In fact, both the House and Senate passed felony penalties for violations of the animal fighting law in 2001 and 2002, but the provision was inexplicably stripped out of the Farm Bill at the insistence of Republican House negotiators in a conference committee.
While there were just a handful of opponents of the legislation in Congress, the most influential detractor was Sensenbrenner, who from 2001 to 2006 had been chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, which writes the penalties for most federal crimes.
For reasons he has never satisfactorily explained, Sensenbrenner put unusual amount of energy into thwarting the advance of stronger laws against dogfighting and cockfighting — a position at odds with his self-branding as a law-and-order, tough-on-crime lawmaker.
In the 109th Congress — spanning 2005 and 2006 — the Senate unanimously passed the felony legislation right out of the gate in April 2005.
The House bill, introduced by former Wisconsin Rep. Mark Green, also had a huge head of steam and was picking up scores of cosponsors. By the end of the Congress, the bill had a remarkable 324 cosponsors — more cosponsors than any other bill in Congress but one. It also had the backing of 400 local law enforcement agencies.
But the bill had to clear the Judiciary Committee, and Sensenbrenner insisted the whole matter was a state issue and no concern of the Congress. Sensenbrenner had almost no support on his committee for his position — especially after lawmakers heard testimony of the vast network of dogfighting and cockfighting operations selling and moving animals in interstate and foreign commerce, its connection to other serious criminal activities, and the threat that cockfighting in particular posed to the poultry industry through the spread of avian influenza.
Dozens of Republican lawmakers appealed to Sensenbrenner to pass the legislation, but he wouldn't hear of it. In the end, he ran the clock out, and the law was not upgraded. If it had been, federal prosecutors could have brought far stronger charges, with more severe penalties, against Vick.
After the November 2006 elections, which ushered Democrats into power, Sensenbrenner lost his chairmanship. The new chairman, Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, moved the legislation in rapid fashion.
The bill was introduced on the first day of the new Congress. It quickly amassed more than 300 cosponsors and passed the full House in March. Sensenbrenner had tried to kill the bill in committee, and then voted against it on the floor, with 36 other Republicans and two Democrats. But, now in the minority, he had lost his power. The Senate took up the House bill and passed it unanimously, less than a month later. President Bush signed it into law on May 3.
So while Michael Vick is in serious trouble, and his freedom and career are threatened, he just escaped being charged under the new federal law against animal fighting and its strengthened felony penalties. If Vick is convicted and a modest sentence is meted out, he can thank his lawyer first and James Sensenbrenner second.
About the author: Wayne Pacelle is president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. To learn more about the organization, visit the Web site: humanesociety.org.