Behold, the machinery of our representative government, spinning gloriously in reverse! It’s true that Speaker of the House John Boehner is now on record with the claim that the accomplishments of his party caucus are better measured on the basis of the bills that its members repeal than the ones they endorse. (Of course, in the higher-profile lawmaking battles of our age, this strategy is little more than a glorified head fake, since the all firebreathing “No”s that Team Boehner has stood athwart the path of history to declaim pretty much go nowhere, with a Democratic Senate and White House rounding out the whole federal lawmaking scene.)
Yet in much the same way that it’s worth monitoring both the overleveraged investments behind a global polluter and the toxic byproducts it discharges into the heavens, it’s very useful to lay the creative legislative destruction that Boehner lauds alongside the workaday graft that self-respecting lawmakers can never afford to bypass, if they expect to stay in the pink, financially speaking.
Take food policy. Ever since the Food Stamp program— aka the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP)—was launched under the legislative stewardship of that Kansas Bolshevik Bob Dole in 1973, its funding has been reauthorized in one of those ghastly but necessary compromises that makes Washington tick. In the overstuffed farm bill that sets aside SNAP money for needy families are also the billions upon billions in farm subsidies that Congress disburses to the bloated agribusiness combines that control most of the nation’s food supply. SNAP isn’t cheap—the program cost $79 billion in 2012—but in addition to stoking demand for farm products, it is also an important countercyclical source of economic stimulus. Direct-assistance programs like food stamps put cash for essential goods in the hands of the population that needs it the most—i.e., the 47 million Americans living below the official poverty line; a paltry $19,530 for a family of three. Under these conditions, money goes into circulation far more rapidly than it does under, say, a fresh round of bonuses at a bailed-out investment bank or a crop subsidy to an agribusiness giant. What’s more, the pending farm bill contains $146 billion in farm subsidies, even as it phases in $20 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next five years.
It also bears repeating, in our morally aphasiac public discourse, that feeding hungry people is the right thing to do, whatever system of ethics or civic faith we pretend to profess. Taking the means to eat away from an already struggling class of citizens is pretty much the opposite of what you’d want a notionally democratic government to do, and it’s the sort of thing you’d expect today’s GOP, which never tires of advertising its fealty to “traditional values” to think twice about. Even if moral suasion won’t avail, it simply looks bad to use your political clout to take food off the table for Americans who are struggling to get by.
Yet this is just what John Boehner’s repeal-happy band of refuseniks has done. For the first time in four decades of federal food assistance, they’ve endorsed a farm bill without funding for food stamps. (They also came just a few votes shy, this June, of passing the workhouse-style Southerland amendment to the farm bill, which would effectively gut food stamps once and for all, by giving states financial incentives, working out to half of their in-state SNAP allotments, to simply kick their residents off the program.)
All by itself the House GOP’s severance of food aid from farm subsidies is a cretinous act. But wait till you hear–to paraphrase the reanimated champion of agri-values Paul Harvey–the rest of the story. You see, a study released by the staff of Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, shows that 14 House Republicans who voted to ditch SNAP funding are also the recipients of generous federal layouts from the ever-swelling farm-subsidy side of the farm bill. These House backers of the Farm Bill provisions to carve out food-stamp funding all pulled in, on average, more than $513,000 in federal subsidies for their own farm land, according to data compiled by the Environmental Working Group. What’s more, their collective haul could be significantly higher that the $7.3 million they’re netting in outright subsidies, if any of them also get benefits from the federal Crop Insurance program, which alone among Washington-funded farm programs, doesn’t even disclose the identities of its recipients. Twenty-six Crop Insurance recipients came away with a cool million-plus in payments over the past year–yet there’s no way of knowing whether they’re GOP members of Congress, a well-connected proprietor of a hipster locavore commune, or a wholly owned subsidiary of Archers Daniels Midland. In the more recondite reaches of our lawmaking process, no one need know your name, so long as your checks clear.
There is a gorgeous mosaic of boodlers on display in the appendix to Miller’s report, which we urge you to go investigate now. But our favorite is probably Tennessee Rep. Steve Fincher, who alone accounts for nearly half of this heartless lawmakers’ haul, with $3,483,824 in federal farm subsidies–roughly triple the man’s estimated total net worth. Now that’s the kind of public-private partnership that would probably get Detroit back up on its feet again. (And maybe that’s the secret plan behind the utopian dream of reclaiming the blighted Motor City’s abandoned housing lots as farmland–plant a couple of rows of vegetables, and before you know it, you’ll be harvesting bushels full of anonymously tendered federal greenbacks!) Yet despite his status as a welfare princeling of the agriculture sector, Fincher is nonetheless a diehard foe of federal handouts for the poor and hungry–even though SNAP eligible residents make up for a whopping 22 percent of the population of Crockett County, in Fincher’s home district. Here’s how he primly explained his anti-SNAP vote to a gathering at the Memphis Holiday Inn in June: “The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity is to take care of each other, but not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.” Curiously, despite this rousing show of Christian scruple, Fincher is supporting an additional $9 to $10 billion for the federal Crop Insurance program.
Chris Lehmann is an editor at Bookforum and the senior editor of The Baffler.