So it is once again obvious that not only should members of Congress actually read and understand legislation before voting on it, but they should also give extra scrutiny to bills whose merits cannot earn passage without a side helping of pork.
And that, U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman insists, is why he and other House conservatives just helped defeat what even in our bitterly partisan times had been a perennial sacred cow: the farm bill.
“It’s not a farm bill anymore,” the Third District Republican told me, noting that as recently as the 1970s, farm programs accounted for 80 percent of the legislation’s cost and food stamps just 20 percent. But by the time the House rejected its $940 billion five-year bill by a 234-195 vote last month, those ratios had been reversed, Stutzman said.
A good argument can perhaps be made for some degree of both farm supports and food stamps. But the linkage between the two only marginally related programs was always more about politics than agriculture. Urban politicians supported programs for rural America, because otherwise conservative farm-belt politicians returned the favor by supporting an ever-larger welfare state. The result was predictable, if not inevitable.
“Food stamps were $260 billion in 2002, $480 billion in 2008 and $780 billion now. Some would say that’s because of the recession, but in the past year unemployment has gone down. Food stamps have just grown so large (because) there’s been little reform. We’re advertising for people (to go on food stamps),” Stutzman said.
Without legislation, the agriculture industry would operate under a 1949 law that could lead to steep increases in the cost of milk and other commodities. But Stutzman said the only way a farm bill will pass in the GOP-controlled House is by separating subsidies from food stamps.
The numbers indicate the complexity of the challenge. Republicans accounted for 62 of the 234 votes against the bill, most believing the $20 billion in food-stamp cuts (matched by a similar cut in farm spending) was not large enough. That means most of the “no” votes came from Democrats, many of whom found the food-stamp cuts excessive. Just 24 Democrats supported the bill, along with 171 Republicans.
The Senate, meanwhile, passed its version of the farm bill by a bipartisan vote of 66-27, cutting farm spending by $24 billion but food stamps by just $4 billion, Stutzman said.
Politically, some will interpret the vote as just the latest example of the alleged civil war raging within the GOP between moderates and the conservative/tea-party wing. And if no bill passes and food prices increase, Republicans will inevitably get most of the blame, even though Democrats accounted for most of the “no” votes.
As a matter of personal integrity and public policy, however, it’s hard to argue with the principle that bills should become laws because they represent good ideas – not because politicians were bribed into supporting them.
Few politicians ever won a colleague’s support by offering to spend less, but with the national debt at nearly $17 trillion – that’s about $53,000 per American and increasing by $2.45 billion per day – winning votes by encouraging dependency is neither acceptable nor sustainable.
In fact, from a conservative standpoint, even higher – that is, market-based – food prices might be profitable. “The goal is to get there,” Stutzman said. “But we can’t pull the rug out.”
Perhaps not, but passage of “clean” farm and food stamp bills – neither protected by the city-country alliance that shielded previous farm bills from scrutiny – would be a step in the right direction.
Some have suggested the conservatives’ refusal to play ball does not bode well for the passage of “comprehensive” immigration reform. That would be the Senate bill that includes $1.5 billion for youth jobs programs and perks for everything from resorts to the seafood industry to au pair agencies. “We’re trying to get away from such ‘Christmas trees,’ ” Stutzman said.
But to do that, he and other conservatives will have to convince Washington and the rest of the country that every day is not Dec. 25 – and that successful politicians needn’t masquerade as Santa Claus.
Ho, ho, ho.