Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
The holiday season is a time to be grateful for what we have and to be compassionate toward those who are hurting. One in seven Americans relies on government assistance for food.
U.S. House Republicans not only want to cut that aid by $16 billion or more over 10 years, they continue to dodge a needed public debate over the nation’s growing poverty problem and the role government should play in addressing it.
Government aid, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), accounts for 80 percent of the overall farm bill. Nearly 47 million people receive benefits from the program, which costs about $80 billion per year. Because of the nation’s budget woes, cuts to the program were expected. The battle in Congress is over how much.
With bipartisan support, the Senate passed its farm bill in June, with $4 billion in cuts to SNAP over 10 years, or four times less than the House version. The House Agriculture Committee adopted its bipartisan version in July, but House Speaker John Boehner refused to bring it to the floor for debate.
At the time, Boehner said he didn’t have the votes to pass the bill, but members of both parties disputed that claim. In reality, the GOP’s presidential campaign had already alienated a large swath of voters by deriding President Obama as the “food stamp president” and describing Americans as “givers or takers.” Candidate Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe and Rep. Paul Ryan’s desire to turn food stamps into a state block-grant program also served to highlight the issue.
Boehner likely didn’t want the GOP to be debating aid to the poor before the election any more than he does now that the party is dealing with the fallout from Romney’s Nov. 6 defeat amid criticism that he ran an “elitist” campaign.
With the election season in full swing in September, GOP House leaders allowed the 2008 farm bill to expire, thrusting the nation’s farmers, agribusinesses, conservationists and others into perilous economic uncertainty.
Boehner promised to deal with the bill during the lame-duck session, but the House only has a few days left to debate its version, adopt it and send it to a House-Senate conference committee to reconcile the two versions. Instead of that route, GOP leaders may try to wrap the legislation into a package dealing with the “fiscal cliff,” which would also minimize public debate about the impact of the cuts to SNAP.
Obama has suggested $32 billion in agricultural cuts over 10 years. The House Agricultural Committee’s version of the farm bill calls for $35 billion in cuts over that time period, while the Senate’s would save $23 billion. The Senate could save more by cutting overly generous crop insurance payouts.
Congress could choose to extend the 2008 bill or take up the new proposals in January, when committee changes could cause further delays. That’s not a good option.
Both the House and Senate versions have flaws beyond SNAP that should be debated openly. To dodge the public forum that Congress provides simply isn’t acceptable.