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January 25, 2015

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Boehner’s House implodes

The roof fell in on John Boehner’s House of Representatives last week. The Republican leadership’s humiliating defeat on a deeply flawed and inhumane farm bill was as clear a lesson as we’ll get about the real causes of dysfunction in the nation’s capital.

Our ability to govern ourselves is being brought low by a witches’ brew of right-wing ideology, a shockingly cruel attitude toward the poor on the part of the Republican majority, and the speaker’s incoherence when it comes to his need for Democratic votes to pass bills.

Boehner is unwilling to put together broad bipartisan coalitions to pass middle-ground legislation except when he is pressed to the wall. Yet he and his lieutenants tried to blame last Thursday’s farm legislation fiasco — the product of a massive repudiation by GOP conservatives of their high command — on the Democrats’ failure to hand over enough votes.

He seemed to think he could freely pander to the desire of right-wing members of his caucus to throw millions of low-income Americans off the food stamp program. When that didn’t produce enough votes, he then expected Democrats to support a measure that most of them rightly regarded as immoral. In the end, the bill went down, 234-195, with 62 Republicans voting no and 24 Democrats voting yes — more help, by the way, than Nancy Pelosi usually got from Republicans when she was speaker.

Boehner can’t have it both ways, and he should be called out if he lets his party’s disarray throw the nation into an entirely unnecessary debt-ceiling crisis this fall. The nation shouldn’t be held hostage because of Republican chaos.

Start with the food stamp cuts, and let’s remember that this program is a monument to bipartisanship. The current form of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is, in large part, the product of an unlikely alliance between former Sens. Bob Dole and George McGovern in the 1970s. They were far apart ideologically, but both were horrified that too many Americans were going without nourishment. Food stamps have been an enormous success in curbing hunger in our rich nation, while also serving as a powerful stimulus to economic recovery during hard times.

The bill the House voted down would have cut food stamps by $20.5 billion, eliminating food assistance to nearly 2 million low-income people, most of them working families with children or senior citizens.

This alone should have been bad enough to sink the bill. But then Republicans pushed through an amendment by Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., to toughen work requirements in the program. Work requirements sound reasonable until you look at what Southerland’s amendment was actually designed to do.

As Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explained, Southerland’s proposal violated “the most basic standards of human decency” because it made no effort, as other work requirements have in the past, to create employment openings for those who “want to work and would accept any job or work slot they could get, but cannot find jobs in a weak economy.”

In fact, noted Greenstein, a longtime advocate of nutrition assistance, the amendment barred states “from spending more on SNAP employment and training than they do now.” And it created incentives for states to throw people off food stamps by letting their governments keep half the SNAP savings to use for anything they wished (including, for example, tax cuts for the wealthy).

In a more rational political world, progressives and small-government conservatives might join forces to slash subsidies for agribusiness and wealthy farmers while containing market distortions bred by price supports. But when Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., proposed an amendment to restore some of the food stamp funding by reducing spending on crop insurance, it was defeated.

And Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., exposed hypocrisy on the matter of government handouts by excoriating Republican House members who had benefited from farm subsidies but voted to cut food stamps.

The collapse of the farm bill will generally be played as a political story about Boehner’s failure to rally his own right wing. That’s true as far as it goes and should remind everyone of the current House leadership’s inability to govern. But this is above all a story about morality: There is something profoundly wrong when a legislative majority is so eager to risk leaving so many Americans hungry. That’s what the bill would have done and why defeating it was a moral imperative.

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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  1. Nothing benefits a nation more than good government, and nothing damages good government more than ignored flagrant conflicts of interest. There's a lesson here for a nation that appears to be textbook example of bad government and conflict of interest!

  2. I thought racism is the most shameful American trait.

    Now it is the persecution of the poor.

    Can we ever be able to crawl out of our bigotry?

  3. WRONG. The leader knows exactly what he's doing. The House membership has SOME communication with constituents. EBT SNAP needs to subsidize FOOD 4 American seniors, not illegals and anchor babes. The taxpayers, including middle class (but not much from the working "poor"), are paying for several layers of food for illegals: EBT, school breakfast/ lunch/ groceries, Summer free food, food banks, missions and non-profits (many receive mucho tax funding). All this yet our seniors are cold and hungry and get all of $16 a month to supplement their $800 SS benefits.

  4. It would actually be helpful to know the percentage of the so-called "illegals" who are not working. I understand that they have to prove citizenship to collect most government benefits, such as food stamps. (Note that our leaders have not enforced the "citizenship" laws pertaining to many of them for DECADES. That could have spread the impression that we're not serious.)

    I imagine most "illegals" fall into the "cold and hungry" category described by Roslenda. It strikes me as sad that some Americans resent their taxpayer money going to feed people-in-need in this country. I guess that's part of being a "real" Christian American now.

    Columnist E.J. Dionne quotes Robert Greenstein who points out that the House's defeated farm bill made no effort to create employment for people "who want to work and would accept any job or work slot they could get, but cannot find jobs in a weak economy." I would add in a high-tech/low labor, global economy.

    Americans are still waiting for the Job Creation details that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigned on. What we have been given so far are obstructionist strategies, such as 1) the House's "symbolic" repeal of "Obamacare" 37 times and 2) recently, their bill that would make abortions illegal after 20 weeks, instead of the current 24 weeks. Now would be a good time for the GOP to step up to the bipartisan plate and bat a home run for the Red, White and Blue team.

  5. I just emailed this column to a friend. I told him that E. J. Dionne's column shows that the GOP has lost its "collective mind," along with its heart.

  6. That's the GOP for you! Champions of the workers...but only if they work on Wall Street.

  7. Kudos to the conservative revolt in the House which defeated this legislation. There has long been a corrupt self-serving alliance between the rural republicans in favor of wealthy farm subsidies and urban democrats in favor of unrestricted food stamp program expansion. The two issues--SNAP and farm subsidies--should be separated, reformed individually, and each passed on their own merits. Then, the cost to taxpayers won't be $1 Trillion.

    Carmine D

  8. The House recently realized that the FARM BILL NEEDS A REWRITE to exclude so much funding for feeding illegals and anchor babies. House leadership is doing the right thing.

  9. Roslenda...

    Feeding the hungry is a colorblind endeavor, especially regarding children. Shame on you & everyone like you.

  10. You city people have absolutely no idea of the importance of stable agricultural policy and supports. Farming is a high risk endeavor subject to climate, weather, foreign competition. A nation which does not produce sufficient food to provide adequate nutrition for its residents will always be at the mercy of competitors. Notwithstanding the leftist tripe about supporting corporate agriculture or the rightist tripe about SNAP and free markets, the Farm Bill establishes ag policies which bring a measure of stability to the market. Yes, in some years you pay more for basic food products than you might otherwise. But in some years you pay less for those products. Bread, milk, cheese, meat, produce all benefit from reliable crop supports, disaster relief, marketing cooperatives and other elements of the Farm Bill. Up here in the Inland Northwest we grow [mostly] several kinds of wheat, barley and canola. We get [usually] a little over 13 inches of moisture a year, the threshold to successfully grown wheat. But it's risky, a dry year cripples production, as does an extremely wet year. Without price supports and surplus reserves paid for by taxpayers through government prices of wheat would vary widely as would prices of basic foodstuffs. We do not have, nor should we have, an absolute free market in food stocks.

  11. Price supports, Pat? Really? The farm bill legislation set farmers' welfare at around $20 billion annually [$200 Billion for ten years] and guaranteed future price supports at 85 percent of today's levels. With farm commodity prices at all time highs, why are price supports at 85 percent needed? What other industry has 85 percent price guarantees? Perhaps if sugar, wheat, milk, eggs and other agribusiness food prices were not artificially elevated, less food stamps would be needed for their purchases. What do you think, Pat?

    Carmine D

  12. Carmine....if, as you are doing, you only look at the good years, then price supports make no sense. You have to take all the years, good, bad and indifferent. You have to take in climate and weather facts...drought in the Midwest and great weather in the Northwest. You have to understand that farmers live year to year. A bad year means no crop to sell, no money to till, to reseed, to pay for next year. The ag provisions of the Farm Bill smooth out those cycles and allow for farm to market stability. Yes, there is pork in the what? We both know that American government is run by and for those with money and power. They are going to get their share regardless of what me and thee want.

  13. Pat:

    The Food Stamp bill gets another chance. Separate it from the wealthy farm subsidies and let it pass or fail on its own merits. Same with the farm subsidy bill. The two should never have been conflated together. Never. Therein lies the problem.

    Carmine D