Watching C-Span’s live coverage of the Senate deliberations yesterday over the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) is enough to make me long for a dictatorship to move things along. I mean really, would it kill Congress to computerize its voting?

As of Thursday morning, chances had looked good for passing S. 510, which considering we haven’t updated our food-safety laws since 1938, would have been a step forward. Consumer protection groups had made a deal with the sustainable agriculture camp to revise the Tester-Hagan small-farm amendment enough to get it included in the Manager’s amendment to the bill, meaning if S. 510 passed, then both the Republican and Democrat sides had agreed to that the smallest farms and processors should be regulated appropriate to their size.

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Debbie StabenowDebbie Stabenow (D.-Mich.) is the new chair of the Senate agriculture committee.And then the speeches — and the shenanigans — began. Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) decided that now would be a great time to stick in amendments about banning earmarks and the health care act, respectively. That this would almost complete undo a year’s worth of work over S. 510 obviously doesn’t bother Coburn, who said in his speech that he doesn’t believe we have a food-safety crisis, that we have the safest food in the world, and that the FDA and the USDA are doing a bang-up job of protecting Americans. Except, he explained, they don’t really have to, because the invisible hand is keeping us all safe: companies gladly recall their contaminated products because uh, death is bad for business. Senator Coburn conveniently has forgotten the part where Peanut Corp. of America elected to ship its peanut butter even after salmonella tests came back positive. Death is only bad for business if the lawyers can trace the poison back to you.

Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had threatened to keep the Senate in town over the weekend to finish the bill, it’s ben deferred until after Thanksgiving. On November 29 two more cloture votes will be held, one about whether to shut down debate on the Manager’s amendment and the other to end debate on the bill. For those who speak Congress — and I don’t — Philip Brasher has a much more detailed report over at the Des Moines Register.

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In other news, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) will chair the Senate agriculture commmittee, after Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) chose to remain head of the Senate budget committee. As Tom Philpott wrote a few weeks ago, Michigan’s diverse agricultural economy (the second most diverse, after California) might give Stabenow a different perspective on agriculture than her commodity-farming neighbors or Conrad would have had. Stabenow has been active on behalf of “specialty” crops — or what regular people know as fruits and vegetables — as well as biofuels, which is more concerning. “Not only does agriculture create jobs and feed our families across America, but it is also helping us develop new fuels and energy sources,” she said in her statement accepting the chairmanship.