Is it time for a Federal animal cruelty law?

Animal welfare proponents should be rather enthusiastic about this latest bit of news out of Washington. (And please note that I use the term “animal welfare” rather than “animal rights.” Animals don’t have rights under our system of laws except where assigned by people.) A bipartisan bill to make severe cases of animal cruelty a felony seems to be building up a head of steam and might make it over the finish line this time. Questions linger over how appropriate it is for the federal government to dive down this particular rabbit hole, but you’d be hard pressed to find too many politicians willing to cast a vote against preventing the torturing of pets. (CBS News)

Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives re-introduced a bill last week that would make malicious acts of animal cruelty a felony nationwide. A person convicted of the crime could face a fine or up to seven years in prison, or both.

The bill, known as the Preventing Animal Cruel and Torture (PACT) Act, is co-sponsored by Democrat Ted Deutch and Republican Vern Buchanan. PACT would criminalize “crushing, burning, drowning, suffocating and impaling animals.” The measure would also address bestiality and other attempts to sexually exploit animals.

Deutch tweeted, “We will get this done. It’s bipartisan, common-sense policy that will protect our animals.”

His congressional colleague, Buchanan, also said that protecting animals from cruelty is a “top priority” for him.

The last time this bill was submitted it attracted nearly 300 sponsors, in addition to endorsements from law enforcement agencies across the nation. It wound up being frozen in committee by Bob Goodlatte so it never came up for a floor vote. But Goodlatte is gone now and the bill’s supporters appear more confident.

My immediate response from nothing more than an emotional angle is to be all in favor of this bill. I spent too many years volunteering at animal shelters and occasionally working with animal control officers to not have this be a hot button topic for me. Stiff punishments for people who torture and grossly abuse helpless animals, particularly dogs and cats, seem like something that’s long overdue.

But with all that said, this issue is complicated for two reasons. The first is a question of being faithful to small government, conservative principles. Where in the Constitution does the federal government find the power to make such a law? The answer is nowhere. That makes it sound like a power that’s reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. (That phrase is supposed to ring a bell for all of you elected officials, by the way.)

But since when has that stopped the federal government? Going back to the late 1800s, Congress has been passing laws right and left that fall well outside of its natural, constitutional boundaries. They almost always do it by invoking transparently laughable claims about the Interstate Commerce clause, and the courts have been abetting them in these schemes to expand federal power all along the way. If Congress was restricted to passing laws within their original purview the entire registry of federal codes would probably be no bigger than the phone book for a modest-sized city. (You can read a decade-old report from the Heritage Foundation about these abuses if you’re not already familiar. Any you younger readers can ask your parents what a phone book is when you finish reading this article.)

At some point, even the most constitutionally minded among us must be tempted to throw up our hands and consider that if you can’t beat them you might as well join them. Heck, let’s just pass the PACT Act and tack on a line on the end about how someone torturing an animal to death in New Jersey might lead to the owner not crossing over into Pennsylvania to buy a bag of dog food. Hence, Commerce Clause approval!

The other question about the PACT Act is more serious. Some people supporting bills like this (and I’m looking at you, PETA), would like to use the laws as a pretense to shut down the farming of cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys and other livestock. Sadly, there’s no terribly “kind” method of dispatching an animal prior to processing the meat, but we do need to ensure it’s done as quickly and humanely as possible. Laws like this, if not properly crafted, could be abused in such a fashion.

So I remain conflicted about this bill. Do I go with my heart or with my head? When I figure out the answer I’ll let you know.