Sunday, November 21, 2010

Vote early; vote often.

How often do you vote? Every four years? Every two? How confident do you feel, when you walk up to your polling place, that you are making the best choices - the ones that most accurately reflect your values?

If you’re like me, the answer is “not very”. When it comes to candidate races, in which the choice generally comes down to only two people, it’s a lot easier to decide who gets my vote. Ballot propositions often leave me in a quandary though. I use my best judgment, but really, the only thing that makes me comfortable voting yes or no is the knowledge that my vote is only a tiny contribution to the decision.

I have spent the past year learning about food: where our food comes from, how our system affects our health and environment, and even the ramifications of our global trade policies and subsidized food system on the developing world. I have blogged about food, taught a class about food, and attended panel discussions. I completely changed the way I eat. These are ways in which I vote every day. Perhaps they are useful, but they are still only tiny contributions.

Could I do more?

Despite the seemingly endless commercials for and against ballot measures, most policy changes are made between elections – in the Senate and the House of Representatives. More important than which particular congressperson happens to be in office, is how that person votes on any given piece of legislation, when they choose to compromise, and which issues they concede. It is at these points that my voice could be more than noise – that my passion and concern could have an impact.

Am I ready to do more?

Fighting for what I think is right takes confidence and courage – two things I’m not sure I have! Before dialing up my congressperson to assert my views and call for action, I need to know what I’m asking for.

Recently, I read about a new bill to enhance food safety by, among other things, allowing the FDA to recall tainted food. Currently, recalls are voluntary and determined by the producers or manufacturers of the food in question. I read about the food safety bill in an article in The Washington Post, in which Michael Pollan explains the bill and why he is strongly in favor of its passage, and in several posts on Civil Eats.

The most comprehensive look at this piece of legislation came from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), a group that “advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities”. They currently have an action alert about the food safety bill, which includes an explanation of key points in the bill, a link to a full report by NSAC, and helpful instructions on how to contact your Senator and advice on what to say. This piece of legislation and its amendments are currently being debated in the Senate. And I could be a part of that conversation, if only I would pick up the phone and call.

I’m still nervous about taking this next step. But come Monday morning, I am going to call Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and explain to them why I think this bill is important. Both these senators are likely to vote yes on the bill along with the two amendments that make it feasible for small or family farms. Even so, picking up the phone shows these senators that their constituency cares about food policy. Perhaps hearing from me will make them more willing to fight for my interests in the future and less likely to concede to other interests. Despite my self-doubt, I think this is something I have to do. If there is a topic you are passionate about, I encourage you to educate yourself about current legislation and vote with your telephone. Vote early; vote often.

And for those of you less passionate about food…

Obviously, food policy is what motivates me to participate in the legislative process. However, there are easy ways of learning about legislation on any topic. Reading or subscribing to blogs and news articles is a good way to learn about upcoming bills. Another way is to keep up with the legislation being written, debated, and voted for in the Senate and the House. Thomas records current and past legislation (since 1989), Congressional activities day-by-day, voting records, and more. The Library of Congress runs Thomas with the purpose of making the legislative process accessible to the public. I used the “bill text search” to find legislation related to food that is being debated, amended, or voted on – in other words, bills with floor action – in the 2009/2010 Congressional year.

Thomas found over 400 entries. The first three are versions of the House’s Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (H.R. 2749). I can see that this bill has passed. The fourth entry is the Senate version of the bill: the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), which was the topic of this post. From here, I can access a PDF of the actual text of the bill – a 266-page document containing language that will be removed from the current law followed by the new regulations. Following the link to S. 510’s page, I can also navigate to a summary of the bill and it’s history and current status. This is a great way to learn about legislation you are passionate about.

GovTrack is non-governmental site that covers current and past legislation. Informed by Thomas, this site also provides commentary and allows users to ask and answer questions. The interface is a little more user-friendly than Thomas as you can see in their S. 510 page. Finally, lists the contact information for elected officials by zip code. The only commentary appears to be user-generated; they also allow users to post content such as their letters to Congress or calls-to-action by different advocacy groups.

I hope this information will help you identify the legislation you most care about and give you the tools to participate in the process. Good luck!

[Special thanks go to Eric M. Huff for providing the link to the Washington Post article, helping me identify sources of information on S. 510, and encouraging me to participate!]

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