For Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the return to Washington for the new session of Congress must have been daunting. With rising complaints over the loss of civil liberties, a new tax controversy and the rollback of environmental laws, it must have been hard to decide where to start.
Last week, her staff put speculation to rest. Feinstein is hard at work on a law to prohibit the slaughter of horses for human consumption.
As an environmentalist, I would normally be enthusiastic about any animal rights measure introduced in this Congress. The Feinstein bill, however, takes the usual senatorial search for cost-free political issues to an absurd degree. The bill is part of a national effort to prohibit the export of U.S. horse meat to Europe, where it is a much-loved delicacy in nations such as France and Belgium.
Of course, even if the bill passes, horses will still be slaughtered by the tens of thousands for dog food and glue. Apparently it is entirely acceptable for a dachshund, but not a Frenchman, to eat our horses.
Americans have long viewed the equine appetite of our European cousins with legitimate disgust. Even with the advent of the Atkins diet, horse filets remain on par with beagle burgers as American culinary no-nos.
Yet, with 50,000 horses slaughtered annually in Texas alone, companies would prefer to sell the meat at a higher price to European restaurants rather than to rendering plants.
In 1998, Californians voted by a whopping 62% to make the sale of horse meat for human consumption a crime. Texas recently stated that criminal charges may be brought on the same basis. The result is that thousands of horses are shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter and sale.
It is hard not to feel sorry for the American cow. Feinstein says her legislation simply reflects the horse's "significant role in the history and culture of our country." After all, Roy Rogers did not ride a Holstein named Betsy. He rode a horse and would have hogtied the man seeking a Trigger tenderloin.
As for the cows, they get what they deserve. Cows apparently lack that key sense of loyalty, especially those surly, anemic milk-fed calves that we eat as veal.
And I will not even mention the wicked, un-American attitudes of more vicious species like lambs, chickens and turkeys.
Nothing prevents citizens from rescuing horses and putting them out to pasture. A number of such organizations have been formed and have rescued hundreds, if not thousands, of horses from slaughter.
A campaign to prohibit the slaughter of horses for any purpose would be understandable, but the obsession with human consumption alone is bizarre. Being boiled down for glue or being served up in cans of dog food hardly seems a more noble end.
For the horses, the use of their meat to feed Great Danes or real Danes is a rather precious distinction. It is necessary to be brutally frank. The horses' noble end under the Feinstein bill would still involve stunning them with a 4-inch retractable bolt driven into the brain and hanging them by a hind leg before their throats are slit.
Of course, for a politician, the horse meat controversy makes perfect sense. One can hardly go wrong in trying to keep some overstuffed Belgium banker from eating our horses. It is certainly a lot easier than trying to protect civil liberties during a war on terror or squabbling over tax cuts.
It does not matter that this clearly is not an issue for the U.S. Congress. This nation is based on the principle of federalism, leaving such matters to the states to decide for themselves. Nevertheless, you can expect that every member will soon have a button with a red line crossing out the image of some carnivorous Frenchman.
Meanwhile, if you have any thoughts on the bill, you can almost always catch the members hashing out legislative details at one of their favorite restaurants, Morton's, where they can toast the American horse over a good 20-ounce steak.