Captain Catfish Goes to Washington

Summer cookouts. In Washington, they're not just good food and good fun. They're a chance to rally lawmakers to your cause.

Catfish Farmers of America sought to do just that when it held its annual fish fry June 15 at a venue not far from the Capitol.

The cooks dished out a Southern smorgasbord: fried catfish, cole slaw, french fries and plenty of Tabasco sauce. Captain Catfish, a human-sized catfish clad in a blue sailor's outfit, hobnobbed with the 100 or so lawmakers and staffers.

Captain Catfish

Industry meet-and-greets are commonplace on the Hill, but this year the group's event had a sense of urgency. The annual fly-in just happened to coincide with action in Congress on a resolution that would roll back Agriculture Department inspection of catfish imports, a top concern for the event's host.

“It just happened to be the same week that all this came up,” said Butch Wilson, an Alabama catfish farmer who spent the past few days meeting with lawmakers, urging them to vote down the measure.

Catfish inspections have been an unlikely sticking point on Capitol Hill for years.

In the last two farm bills, U.S. catfish farmers have convinced lawmakers that oversight of catfish import inspections should move from the Food and Drug Administration to the USDA, which would employ tougher standards and screen more shipments. The USDA took over catfish inspections in March of this year.

Deficit hawks in Congress have targeted the program, however. They argue that the additional inspections are wasteful and may amount to protectionism for U.S. fish farmers, which could set off a trade war with other catfish-producing countries. Domestic catfish farmers compete with Asian imports of pangasius, a cousin to the type of catfish common in the United States.

A catfish caught in Uniontown, Ala.

Catfish Farmers of America has tapped Ben Noble of Little Rock, Ark.-based public affairs firm Noble Strategies to get their message to lawmakers.

“I think we've had a very receptive crowd,” Noble said. “Even those that may have been leaning one way, I think we've educated them, and I feel good about it.”

Noble said he is bullish on their chances to halt the resolution, which passed the Senate in May and awaits action in the House.

House leaders haven't yet said whether they would take up the resolution. Similar repeal efforts have come close to succeeding, but never made it out of Congress. Language offered by Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) to repeal the USDA inspection provision made it into the farm bill passed by the House in 2014, but ultimately that provision wasn't in the final version signed by the president.

Hartzler is leading the current charge to get a House vote on the resolution and recently sent a letter signed by more than 150 members—an unusual mix of budget hawk Republicans and consumer advocate Democrats—calling for a vote on the measure before Congress leaves for August recess.

Captain Catfish, it seems, has his work cut out for him.