Commentary Magazine


Topic: SNAP challenge

The Logic of the Farm Bill’s Failure

Thanks to the whip count, there is usually an inverse relationship between the scope of a piece of legislation and the drama of the vote itself. The more important, controversial, or far-reaching a bill, the more embarrassing would be its televised defeat. And, especially with regard to unpopular or controversial bills, legislators don’t want to go on record voting for a doomed law.

So there is something almost refreshing about moments of suspense or surprise in Congress, one of which took place yesterday. The New York Times reports: “The surprise defeat of the farm bill in the House on Thursday underscored the ideological divide between the more conservative, antispending Republican lawmakers and their leadership, who failed to garner sufficient votes from their caucus as well as from Democrats.”

This is an incomplete portrait of the vote, since it may be technically true that Republicans failed to garner sufficient votes from Democrats–but so did the Democratic House leadership, specifically Nancy Pelosi. Each parties’ House leadership promised the other more votes than it ultimately supplied. Pelosi and Speaker John Boehner weren’t thrilled about the bill, and their base flanks hated it. The point was to pass something and then make adjustments in committee. It might be accurate to say, then, that what happened was the House voted down a bill it didn’t like.

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Thanks to the whip count, there is usually an inverse relationship between the scope of a piece of legislation and the drama of the vote itself. The more important, controversial, or far-reaching a bill, the more embarrassing would be its televised defeat. And, especially with regard to unpopular or controversial bills, legislators don’t want to go on record voting for a doomed law.

So there is something almost refreshing about moments of suspense or surprise in Congress, one of which took place yesterday. The New York Times reports: “The surprise defeat of the farm bill in the House on Thursday underscored the ideological divide between the more conservative, antispending Republican lawmakers and their leadership, who failed to garner sufficient votes from their caucus as well as from Democrats.”

This is an incomplete portrait of the vote, since it may be technically true that Republicans failed to garner sufficient votes from Democrats–but so did the Democratic House leadership, specifically Nancy Pelosi. Each parties’ House leadership promised the other more votes than it ultimately supplied. Pelosi and Speaker John Boehner weren’t thrilled about the bill, and their base flanks hated it. The point was to pass something and then make adjustments in committee. It might be accurate to say, then, that what happened was the House voted down a bill it didn’t like.

That’s less colorful than the press coverage depicting raging Tea Partiers staging an insurrection and virtually chasing Boehner from the House floor with pitchforks and torches. If you give every lawmaker a reason to vote against a bill, as happened with the farm bill, they very well may take you up on it. First of all, as Bethany noted yesterday, from a spending standpoint it isn’t so much a farm bill as a food stamp bill. Of the bill’s $939.5 billion in spending, most of it was on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Leading up to the bill, Democrats engaged in a stunt called the “SNAP Challenge,” in which they would try to feed themselves on a SNAP budget. They did not exactly shine on this one, and ended up proving two things: that Democratic members of Congress don’t know what the word “supplemental” means (the program is not intended to be the sum total of anyone’s food budget), and that many can’t be relied upon to budget for themselves, even though they are empowered to budget for the country.

The latter realization made the “SNAP Challenge” not only silly, but also vaguely terrifying. And it helped doom the bill. Democrats, confused by their trip to the supermarket and the purpose of the SNAP program, decided there wasn’t enough money in the bill for it. Conservatives, who did not suffer from the same confusion, thought the mammoth spending bill spent too much. This is a recipe for a failed bill, which was exactly the fate that awaited the legislation.

There were the inevitable hysterical reactions by those who didn’t get their way that democracy is in peril. Politico refers to these folks in its reaction story: “People involved in the farm debate, irate at the sudden defeat, say the House is plainly not working.” But actually, the opposite is true. In a perceptive post on the failure of the bill, which he called “over-determined,” National Review’s Dan Foster writes:

Maybe Boehner and Cantor made a tactical mistake. They could have gone much, much bigger on the food stamp cuts—say, rolling back the program to its pre-recession size—in order to shore up the caucus, Democratic votes be damned. Remember that this vote wasn’t the end game anyway. The point was to pass something and then hammer out a compromise in conference committee, away from glaring media eyes and pesky rank-and-filers. Besides, the president had vowed to veto the House bill anyway, so why not go bigger?

In other words, the GOP House could have followed the Democrats’ playbook and simply passed a more partisan bill along partisan lines. The House can pass legislation on a majority vote without having to face a filibuster or other of the Senate’s procedural brake pedals. What doomed this particular bill was its attempt at bipartisanship and corralling Democratic votes that were promised but not delivered. This is why although the post-bill partisan finger pointing is obnoxious from both sides, Pelosi’s lashing out at the GOP is absurd. They could have passed a more conservative bill without her caucus or her input. Her behavior is now encouraging them to do exactly that.

And so is the pressure on Boehner (and, to a lesser extent, Cantor). Foster makes what I think is a very important point when he writes: “The revolt of conservatives against traditional caucus hierarchy is starting to feel like a semi-permanent development in American politics.” It does not benefit Cantor to have these surprise votes. Someone has to better take the temperature of the House conservatives, and if Cantor doesn’t serve as that link between the base and the leadership then he’s going to find both sides wondering what his role is in all this.

Supporters of the farm bill cannot credibly make the claim that the bill was too partisan to pass. And the leadership of both parties would do well to stop talking about House conservatives as if they are spoiled, petulant children. If they were sent to Congress to do anything amid the rise of Tea Party politics, it was to vote down bloated spending schemes. There is an argument to be made that some Tea Partiers have been too averse to governing. But governing sometimes means voting against bad legislation, and the farm bill had few merits.

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Democrats Make a Farce of SNAP Challenge

This week the House of Representatives is set to debate the misnamed “Farm Bill,” which recently passed the Senate. According to Human Events, the majority of the debate will focus on the explosion of food stamp benefits, and how out-of-control spending on the benefits, officially called SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), could be curtailed. Late last year the Weekly Standard reported that since 2009 food stamp rolls have increased at a rate of 75 times that of job growth. The Standard quoted Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee explaining that “Over time, these trends, if not reversed, spell economic disaster for the United States and its citizens.”

Spending for food stamps has increased 70 percent during the Obama administration and if the Farm Bill passes in its current form, those spending rates will be locked in place. In order to draw attention to the bill, it’s en vogue this week for Democrats to take up the “SNAP Challenge,” an experiment in shopping and eating on a budget of $4.50 a day, the amount that SNAP awards individuals on the program.

Even the Washington Post took the challenges to task, reminding lawmakers that the S in SNAP stands for supplemental. More than 70 percent of households on the program have school-aged children, thus qualifying them for free or reduced-price meals. While the average benefit for a one-person household is $4.50 a day, that figure increases with additional family members, especially if members of the family are receiving two meals a day for free at school. 

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This week the House of Representatives is set to debate the misnamed “Farm Bill,” which recently passed the Senate. According to Human Events, the majority of the debate will focus on the explosion of food stamp benefits, and how out-of-control spending on the benefits, officially called SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), could be curtailed. Late last year the Weekly Standard reported that since 2009 food stamp rolls have increased at a rate of 75 times that of job growth. The Standard quoted Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee explaining that “Over time, these trends, if not reversed, spell economic disaster for the United States and its citizens.”

Spending for food stamps has increased 70 percent during the Obama administration and if the Farm Bill passes in its current form, those spending rates will be locked in place. In order to draw attention to the bill, it’s en vogue this week for Democrats to take up the “SNAP Challenge,” an experiment in shopping and eating on a budget of $4.50 a day, the amount that SNAP awards individuals on the program.

Even the Washington Post took the challenges to task, reminding lawmakers that the S in SNAP stands for supplemental. More than 70 percent of households on the program have school-aged children, thus qualifying them for free or reduced-price meals. While the average benefit for a one-person household is $4.50 a day, that figure increases with additional family members, especially if members of the family are receiving two meals a day for free at school. 

As to be expected when a $955 billion bill targeting the out-of-control welfare state comes up for a vote, political grandstanding has ensued. This week 36 members of Congress have taken up the challenge, and it seems they’re aiming to outdo each other in ridiculous stunts to showcase just how difficult they think living on a limited food budget is for average Americans. The blogger Sooper Mexican has an amusing rundown of the worst moments so far, which include shopping at a high-end supermarket and buying a single egg for $1.08. It seems that these politicians believe that Americans receiving public assistance should be able to shop for a single hard boiled egg at the time at Whole Foods, with their fellow Americans footing the bill. The Washington Post even offered a suggestion for the SNAP challengers, from the USDA’s own website:

[The] USDA also publishes an extensive list of recipes that can be used to produce a healthy low-cost meal. A search for dishes costing $4.50 or less turned up 444 options, many of which were for eight or more servings. Dishes costing less than $1.50 produced 116 results.

Many conservatives have also taken up the challenge, noting how, with smart shopping and advanced planning, families can easily and healthfully live solely within the SNAP allotment. With millions of American families living on budgets tighter than ever, it’s a message that resonates with voters. This, coupled with the fact that food stamps were never meant to supply a family’s full nutritional needs, are what conservatives should be emphasizing if they plan on voting against the bill. With the House Speaker John Boehner publicly stating that he plans to support the House’s version of the bill, which is only slightly less bloated than the Senate version, it’s unclear if conservatives will even try to block the bill’s passage. 

Instead of locking in current spending rates, some commonsense solutions to our food stamp epidemic can and should be implemented. Another government assistance program, WIC, limits spending to basic staples, something that those receiving food stamps should also be required to do. There are countless stories of those on the program going on spending sprees to use up their benefits, buying candy and sometimes even lobsters on their fellow taxpayer’s dime. Realistically, conservatives don’t have enough political capital or power to do anything to slow, let alone halt, these massive explosions of food stamp spending. If Democrats promoting the SNAP Challenge are unable to budget, both at the supermarket with their own credit card and while budgeting for our nation’s expenditures, it appears they’re also unwilling to ask their fellow Americans to do so, even if those Americans are spending taxpayer dollars. If that’s not the definition of the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” what is?

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