The overwhelming majority of Americans believe that animals deserve at least some protection from harm and exploitation. Some 94 percent of respondents said as much in a 2015 Gallup poll with an intriguing 32 percent agreeing that animals should receive the same level of protection from these ills as humans.

The tides are changing; laws are beginning to catch up. Voting consumers are paying closer attention to where their food comes from with increased awareness of how factory farms treat animals. Several states have responded by passing legislation to prohibit some of the most egregious abuses, such as confining animals in cages and crates so tightly that they cannot even turn around or stretch their limbs. These laws provide basic humane consideration and reflect evolving societal values and mainstream opposition to the cruelty of industrial animal agriculture.

It has been said that “the only constant is change.” Thoughtful leaders understand and embrace positive change, but there are also those who lack vision and perspective, and who defend outmoded thinking. One such individual is Rep. Steve King, who is perhaps the most backward-thinking member of Congress. He has introduced federal legislation, H.R. 4879/H.R. 3599, which threatens a variety of state laws, including those that prevent animal cruelty, protect consumers and the environment, and uphold health and safety standards. It is particularly ironic that Rep. King, R-Iowa, would promote such a sweeping federal bill to undermine state laws when he claims to be a staunch defender of states’ rights. His inconsistency is disconcerting, as is his apparent inability to show empathy or understand empirical reality.

King is a reliable mouthpiece for the factory farming industry, and this legislation is intended to allow irresponsible actors to continue unchecked. He is enabling cruelty and greed at the expense of human decency and defending an industry that should be held accountable for the harm it causes to animals, the environment, and ourselves.

Factory farms spread across the U.S. during the second half of the 20th century, displacing smaller family farms while polluting the environment and destroying rural communities. They focused on maximizing production and profitability, rather than on being good neighbors. Thousands of animals were packed into tighter spaces, generating vast quantities of excrement. Fecal pathogens and agricultural chemicals began to contaminate the water, land, and air; threatening the health and well-being of residents living nearby. Today, these citizens -- taxpayers and voters -- also face declining property values.

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Meanwhile, animals confined within these cruel factory-farming operations endure filthy, overcrowded, and stressful conditions -- a breeding ground for disease. Keeping farm animals alive and growing has become a significant challenge. Industrial farms increasingly depend on antibiotics and other drugs, and this contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Formerly life-saving drugs are rendered useless when humans are infected with these so-called “superbugs.” Virulent pathogens are killing people, and medical experts are concerned that this problem will continue to get worse if we don’t stop the indiscriminate and irresponsible use of drugs on factory farms.

Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” The way we treat other animals is a reflection of who we are; when we oppress them, it undermines our empathy, which is a vital part of our humanity. Research shows a correlation between crimes against animals and violence against people. Besides hardening our hearts, the callous mistreatment of animals on factory farms has wrought enormous human suffering and environmental degradation.

Unfortunately, nefarious industries profit handsomely from factory farming, and King is their ally in Washington, D.C. He is fighting to perpetuate vile practices that don’t comport with mainstream values or the interests of society at large. Agribusiness leaders are taking steps and advocating for reforms, but short-sighted profiteers have dug in to defend harmful practices and behavior that is outside the bounds of acceptable conduct. They are also trying to prevent citizens from learning about their abuses by passing so-called “ag-gag” laws to undermine investigations and discourage public discourse. It is very telling that this industry is working so hard to conceal its ignominious deeds.

In Washington, D.C., lawmakers are responsible for addressing relevant and timely matters, and ultimately for advancing policies that support our nation’s health and well-being and elevate society at large. We fall short of these goals when self-serving special interests hijack the process and promote legislation antithetical to the public welfare. There's so much at stake as a new Farm Bill is being drafted. Now, more than ever is the right time to speak up before King succeeds in his attempts to roll back reasonable and necessary improvements to our broken food system. Factory farms do not deserve another pass, and consumers are too bright to be left in the dark.

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Baur is president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, an animal advocacy organization based in New York state, and a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.