Republicans hate domestic spending, but their hatred is not completely indiscriminate. Some programs offend them more, and others less. The general pattern is that social programs offend Republicans to the degree that they benefit the poor, sick, or otherwise unfortunate. The struggle over the farm bill is not the biggest policy dispute in American politics, but it is the one that most clearly reveals the priorities and ideological identity of the contemporary GOP.
The farm bill traditionally combines agriculture subsidies (which hands out subsidies to people on the arbitrary basis that the business they own produces food as opposed to some other goods or services) with food stamps (which hands out subsidies to people on the highly nonarbitrary basis that they’re poor enough to likely have trouble scraping together regular meals). Conservative Republicans revolted against the normally automatic passage, insisting that the cuts to food stamps — $20 billion — did not slice deeply enough. Last night the House rectified its failure by cutting food stamps by $40 billion.
The putative rationale for the food-stamp cuts is that eligibility standards have loosened, or that it encourages sloth. Jonathan Cohn makes quick work of these claims, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities makes long, detailed work of them. Click on those links if you want a blow-by-blow refutation. The upshot is that food stamps are a meager subsidy, of less than $1.40 per meal, for people either stuck in very low paid jobs or unable to find work at all. Their cost has increased because the recession has increased the supply of poor, desperate people. Republicans have offered specious comparisons to welfare reform, but that law both offered funds for job training and was passed in a full-employment economy. Neither of these conditions holds true of the GOP’s food-stamp cuts, whose only significant result would be the first-order effect of making very poor people hungrier.
CNN reported last night that Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, a Republican supporter of the bill, received a daily meal allowance of $127.41, or 91 times the average daily food-stamp benefit. Lucas is also notable as a recipient of the agriculture subsidies his committee doles out: He and his wife have collected more than $40,000 worth.
It’s the juxtaposition of the two programs that so clearly exposes the party’s agenda. Anti-government ideology can justify even the most vicious cuts to the safety net. It can’t justify the massive socialist scheme that is agriculture policy. And, to be fair, conservative intellectuals generally don’t justify agriculture socialism. But the Republican Party certainly does. The ultraconservative Republican Study Committee recently banned the Heritage Foundation from its meetings because Heritage denounced the GOP’s farm subsidies. There is a grim hilarity here: Republicans punished Heritage for its one technocratically sane position.
Henry Olsen has an admirable screed in National Review assailing Republicans for their lack of interest in cutting agriculture subsidies even as they go to war on food stamps. Even so, Olsen understates the case in crucial ways. He cites the budgetary cost of agriculture subsidies versus food stamps, but neglects to mention the non-budgetary cost of agriculture subsidies: Much of their cost comes in the form of higher food prices.
Olsen also neglects to mention that House Republicans are not only locking in high agriculture subsidies, they are throwing more money at agriculture than Democrats want to spend. Obama has attacked the GOP farm-subsidy bill for spending too much. Here is the one chunk of social spending where Republicans are not only failing to issue hostage threats to secure the cuts they demand, they are also refusing to cut spending as much as Barack Obama asks. And the program they pick to defend is, on the substantive merits, the most unjustifiable program of any significant scale in the federal budget.
It is also one that accrues to disproportionately wealthy and overwhelmingly white recipients. (As opposed to Obamacare, whose beneficiaries are disproportionately poor and non-white.) Olsen, as he no doubt has to do to publish in National Review, presents the contrast as an unfortunate coincidence:
The conservative war on food stamps is the most baffling political move of the year. Conservatives have suffered for years from the stereotype that they are heartless Scrooge McDucks more concerned with our money than other people’s lives. Yet in this case, conservatives make the taking of food from the mouths of the genuinely hungry a top priority. What gives? And why are conservatives overlooking a far more egregious abuse of taxpayer dollars in the farm bill?
It’s not baffling, nor is the notion that the Republican Party protects the class interests of the rich a “stereotype.” It’s an analysis that persuasively explains the facts.
Indeed, it’s the only analysis that persuasively explains the facts. I’d prefer to abolish agriculture subsidies completely while keeping in place (or boosting) food rations for the poor. A libertarian might want to abolish both programs, a socialist might want to keep both. I’d disagree but attribute the disagreement to philosophical differences. What possible basis can be found to justify preserving subsidies for affluent farmers while cutting them for the poor? What explanation offers itself other than the party’s commitment to waging class war?