There is a proverb that dates back to the early Bible that says that as long as mankind exists the strong will always oppress the weak.
Recently we saw a fulfillment of this biblical prophecy play out on Capitol Hill as Congress passed the Farm Bill 2014 laced with lots of generous goodies for rich farmers and insurance companies that will be paid for by the taxpayers and by cuts to the food stamps program that benefits low income people.
THE NEW FARM BILL
It was praised by the President as representing a bipartisan breakthrough and signed by him despite his recent talk about the problem of income inequality.
In the bill there are some decorative reforms such as ending direct payments to millionaires designed to be good talking points in election campaigns. But a closer look at its provisions reveals something very different.
- (a) SUBSIDIES
The main provision of the bill is that it creates new farm subsidies and crop insurance for farmers to be paid for by government if crops fail or prices fall too far.
In the event of any such occurrence the guarantee extends not only to the farmers but to the insurance companies who underwrite failure and so the government has to pay a subsidy not only to the farmers but to the insurance companies as well.
Senator Klobuchar (a Democrat) has implied that this provision is no big deal since it only affects 16 states. But would those who lose benefits under the bill agree? And there is another problem with this provision.
The Congress voted to keep the public from learning how much the lawmakers themselves maybe getting in subsidies. There is an obvious conflict of interest because they were voting on legislation that could give themselves a benefit and went further by including a provision to enable them to hide it by excluding a duty to disclose it.
This at a time when according to the Environmental Working Group:
- 1) in 2013, 15 lawmakers or their spouses who own farms collected a total of $237, 921 in subsidy payments (Washington Post- Why watchdog groups don’t like the new farm bill, by Ed O’Keefe, February 7, 2014); and
- 2) subsidies are skewed to wealthier farmers because taxpayers support goes mostly to large, profitable operations and not to family farms that truly need help (The Economist: The Farm Bill – A trillion in the trough; February 8, 2014).
(B) CUTS IN FOOD STAMPS
The new subsidies will have to paid for by taxpayers but also by cuts of over $800 million a year from the food stamp program which was created to help low-income people (called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP).
This cut will affect 850,000 people and takes an average of $90 out of their pocket each month.
It must be remembered that 45% of food stamp recipients are children and in 2010 USAID said that 41% are working poor. Furthermore 1 in 7 Americans rely on food stamps (New York Times, Welfare for the Wealthy, by Mark Bittman, June 4, 2013).
The timing of this cut could not be worse because at this time people need a safety net as the country recovers from one of the worst recessions and when there is a growing income inequality between the top income earners and the rest of us.
The question to be asked here is why would Congress pass such a bill?
CONGRESS: A MILLIONAIRES CLUB
The fact that Congress would pass a bill that gives more to the rich and less to the poor is hardly surprising considering that the majority of members are millionaires. It is a millionaires’ club.
Of the 534 current members of the House and Senate, 268 had an average net worth of $1 million or more in 2012, up from 257 in 2011 (NPR, Majority in Congress are Millionaires by Carly Cody, January 13, 2014).
But that is not all. These members are not reluctant to use their office for personal gain.
In recent years 73 lawmakers have sponsored legislation that could benefit businesses that involved those members or their families. This practice is both legal and permitted under the ethics rules.
But it is Congress that writes the rules for itself and though the lawmakers require executive branch officials to avoid the appearances of a conflict in their dealings, they have not asked the same of themselves (The Washington Post; Politics-Congress members back legislation that could benefit themselves, relatives; by Kimberley Kindy, David G. Fallis and Scott Higham; October 7, 2012).
This is an area of the law that is badly in need of reform.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE NEW BILL
The new bill signifies all that is wrong with Washington i.e. the hypocrisy and double standards of our elected leaders.
For example, one of the biggest recipients of farm subsidies is a Congressman from Tennessee who says that food stamps is theft and that it is not the role of Washington to steal from some in the country and give to others. So he supported the cuts to SNAP in the bill but is quite happy to collect its generous subsidies, courtesy of the taxpayers and the poor.
Then there is the problem of the imbalance of political clout on Capitol Hill. The Koch brothers who control Americans for Prosperity spared no resources in lobbying to get provisions that expand the biomass energy programs and to include exemptions from the Clean Water Act from which their corporate empire derives benefits.
On the other hand recipients of food stamps had few resources with which to lobby and so without leverage they lost.
Lastly, the bill shows that our elected leaders respond to those who fund them and not to those who elect them. It has been suggested that the reason for the bill was that 10 House members who accepted the most money from agricultural lobbyists took an average of $225,000 in political contributions during 2013 and the Farm bill was just pay back (The Economist, The Farm bill etc.). It is hard to disagree with that.
Victor A. Dixon
February 13, 2014