President Joe Biden’s agriculture secretary nominee sailed through confirmation, setting the table for a potential return of the horse soring debate.

Tom Vilsack was confirmed by the Senate as agriculture secretary, 92-7. The former 2-term Iowa governor is no stranger to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), having served as its leader for 8 years in the Obama administration.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us to contain the pandemic, transform America’s food system, create fairer markets for producers, ensure equity and root out systemic barriers, develop new income opportunities with climate smart practices, increase access to healthy and nutritious food, and make historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy in rural America,” according to a statement attributed to Vilsack after the vote.

While these priorities are on the front burner, Vilsack has demonstrated that soring is an issue of importance to him. Soring is the intentional infliction of pain to horses’ feet to achieve a high-stepping gait among show horses such as Tennessee Walking Horses.

Vilsack’s USDA spearheaded a bid to amend the Horse Protection Act (HPA) of 1970, which prohibits sored horses from shows, exhibitions, sales and auctions. Although the federal law was enacted to end soring, loopholes have allowed it to continue. Congress has introduced dozens of bills in an attempt to close the loopholes, but none have gained traction. 

The U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings Memorial PAST Act of 2019 (H.R. 693) is the only piece of legislation that has been passed by a legislative branch. While the House approved it in a 333-96 vote in July 2019, the Senate’s companion bill (S. 1007) stalled in committee. Both bills sunset at the conclusion of the 116th Congress on Dec. 31, 2020.

The lack of congressional action spurred the USDA to propose changes to the HPA in a bid to end soring in July 2016. The USDA finalized changes to the HPA in January 2017 that largely mirrored an earlier version of the PAST Act (H.R. 3268). However, the Obama administration did not publish the rule in the Federal Register before leaving the White House. The Trump administration withdrew all unpublished rules, sending them back to the relevant agencies for review.

Members of both houses of Congress likely will reintroduce the PAST Act, much as they’ve done over the previous decade. However, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has called on the Biden administration to resurrect the rule that slipped through the cracks at the conclusion of the Obama administration.

“President Biden could make it happen with a simple pen stroke,” writes Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund. “He was part of the administration that championed the rule, and as president, he can easily resurrect it for implementation.”