WASHINGTON — The U.S. House last week approved a bill to give restaurants more flexibility on posting calorie information and protect them from frivolous lawsuits and even criminal charges for adding an extra pickle or two.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House last week approved a bill to give restaurants more flexibility on posting calorie information and protect them from frivolous lawsuits and even criminal charges for adding an extra pickle or two.


Opponents warn the bill would gut the Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to help consumers make healthy choices at a time when obesity has become a national epidemic.


"Across the country, the American people are frustrated because they’ve been limited by the top-down, government-knows-best approach that we see over and over again," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., the bill’s sponsor. "That frustration extends all the way to our local deli counters, grocery stores and convenience markets, whose owners are being told what to do by the FDA in the form of an unworkable, 400-page menu labeling bill."


McMorris Rodgers said the FDA’s upcoming regulations require restaurants to put on paper calorie and nutritional information for every variation on the menu even though many order away from the restaurant. While those consumers won’t read the nutrition information, she said, restaurants could be on the hook legally for inadvertently adding extra ingredients — even a pickle.


"It is unrealistic," McMorris Rodgers said.


Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a long-time champion of providing such information to consumers, said weakening the FDA’s current approach would lead to incomplete information for consumers at the point of purchase when it is needed for healthy decisions.


"We live in a country where obesity is an epidemic," DeLauro said.


Passed by a vote of 266 to 144, the bill now goes to the Senate.


Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, Rep. French Hill, R-Little Rock, Rep. Steve Womack, R-Hot Springs, and Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Rogers, voted for the bill.


House wants more debt talk


The House also approved a bill to require the secretary of the treasury to report to Congress the status of the national debt and the administration’s plan to address it before requesting an increase in the debt cap.


Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation would create a more accountable and timely debt limit process that would emphasize ways to reduce the debt.


"Congress and the administration must work together to get the debt under control before it’s too late," Marchant said.


Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, described the bill as nothing more than a sham to distract from Republicans’ recklessness about default while doing nothing to address the debt.


The Obama administration also weighed in against the bill, saying the information is already provided to Congress.


If the bill made it to the president’s desk, the statement read, he would be advised to veto it.


The bill passed by a vote of 267 to 151.


Crawford, Hill, Womack and Westerman supported the bill.


Trade bill advances


The Senate gave final congressional approval to legislation that includes the most significant updates to customs and trade policy in nearly two decades and a permanent ban on Internet access taxes.


"This is a big win for American job creators and the future of trade policy in our country," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the bill’s sponsor.


Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the Finance Committee’s ranking member and the legislation’s co-sponsor, described provisions as "the strongest package of enforcement tools in decades to crack down on foreign trade cheats."


Wyden singled out provisions to stop foreign corporations from laundering merchandise to evade U.S. duties, close a loophole for imports made with slave and child labor, centralize trade enforcement efforts and combat currency manipulation.


He also pointed to the provision that bans permanently what he called "regressive" Internet taxes.


That provision generated opposition to the legislation.


Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said seven states already collect a tax on Internet access, adding the provision banning such taxes will cost them $100 million in 2020.


"I don’t think Tennessee or any other state should have to play ‘Mother, may I’ with the federal government when deciding whether to collect, or not collect, a state tax that is already owed," he said.


With a 75-20 vote, the Senate sent the measure to the president.


Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., voted for the bill.