THE SHAFT JULY 15, 2013
Almost exactly ten years ago, I was on an airplane, and had the good luck to be seated next to a very distinguished, highly regarded United States senator. (Hi ho the glamorous life!) This man was a senator of the sort that they don’t make anymore. He collected honorary degrees the way other people collect stamps. He was the object of secret scorn and public praise by the young Turks of his party. Many people thought he should have been Secretary of State. He probably thought so himself. He certainly looked the part—perhaps not as much as the current holder of the job, but it was close.
I introduced myself and asked him about a telephone-book-sized volume sitting on his lap. He said it was the farm bill. That’s how I know it was ten years ago. The farm bill comes up every five years and I knew this incident had to be more than five and less than fifteen. Unlike, apparently, everybody else in America, farmers not only need large subsidies from the rest of the taxpayers to make it through the day, but they need their checks guaranteed years in advance, so they can plan.
The senator picked up the farm bill and began waving it around. “Look at this, and now look at this!” he said. I had no idea that senators ever read the legislation they were voting on, let alone analyzing it in such detail. I was impressed. The senator denounced the farm program as a giant boondoggle, with subsidies for people who don’t need them. These subsidies don’t just waste money. They distort the market and poison our relationships with other countries around the world. He went on and on for most of the two-hour flight.
Returning to the office, I recounted this story to my colleagues. At least one senator will vote his conscience on a large federal spending program. At least one won’t pander to the special interests, will stand up to his own constituents, and so forth. I was working myself up into a fine patriotic froth, when a colleague interrupted me.
“He’s a good man, but you know of course that he voted for the farm bill.” I checked and it seemed to be true. Of course in the American version of parliamentary democracy there may be dozens of votes on any particular bill, and you can’t always tell which one is the one that counts.
And so another icon comes crashing down. Well, what can you do? He’s from a farm state. Besides which, a vote for the farm bill was also a vote for food stamps. Or, more to the point, a vote against the farm bill was a vote against food stamps. The two government activities—farm price supports and food stamps—are chained together at the edge of a cliff. Push one over the edge into the abyss, and they both go.
Only a week ago, that didn’t seem very important. Who, after all, would vote against food stamps? Not to reform it or reduce it, or break off the connection with farm price supports, but to just drop it in the dumpster. Food stamps and farm price supports are supposedly related through the concept of “nutrition.” But this is a stretch. The real connection is political, resulting from one of those sorely missed “back-room deals” they used to have, balancing the urban and rural interests. Now the Republican-controlled House has chopped off and discarded food stamps. (The program is now called “SNAP”—an acronym for something or other.) It’s like amputating a gangrenous limb, then keeping the limb and discarding the rest of the body.
Forget about kids going to bed hungry. (Melodramatic, but accurate.) Can this possibly be good politics? Are there actually people out there waiting for a candidate who will kill the food stamp program? It takes your breath away. The Republicans have now cornered the heartless vote. But are there enough heartless people in this country to counterbalance the sane people fleeing the other way?
The net effect of the farm bill, as it stands now in the House, is to take money away from a successful program for making sure that no one starves, and giving it to a variety of programs whose goal is to raise the price of food, for the poor and everyone else. Even if you only care about how things look, this does not look good, it seems to me.
The farm bill is only the latest chapter in the ongoing budget drama, of course. Before that was something called “sequestration.” Congress had promised itself to produce a budget meeting certain targets, and couldn’t do it. The law said that if they didn’t, there would be “across-the-board” cuts in domestic and military spending programs, with various large exceptions. (One was that the restrictions on defense spending don’t apply to spending on an actual war, should one occur. Makes you wonder what the rest of the defense budget is for if wars don’t count.)
In the months since sequestration was imposed, the op-ed pages have been full of special pleading. Fiscal discipline is well and good, but you can’t cut the funds to finance the Kumquat Promotion Act. Kumquats are essential to our security and part of what binds us together as a nation, etc. etc. etc. Congress actually has been pretty stalwart in resisting—so far. They’ve only given in to one group. This is the same group that Ronald Reagan stood up to early in his term, establishing that his balls were as big as Margaret Thatcher’s. It was the Air Traffic Controllers, back after thirty years, warning as usual of layoffs, furloughs, and endless delays at the airport if the sequester applied to them.
Who says there is terminal gridlock on Capital Hill? Not when something important is at stake—like the ability of business executives to make it to their meetings on time. It may well be idiotic to be laying off air traffic controllers, and cruel to impose chaos at the airport on families trying to take their summer vacations. But is it more idiotic than cutting food stamps?
This post has been updated.