During his famously successful 1981 drive to reshape the federal budget and tax code, Ronald Reagan suffered one big defeat: His proposal, championed by OMB director David Stockman, to sort out and simplify the big federal-state “welfare” programs, went nowhere. A big part of it was the idea of combining the primary cash-assistance program, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, with the food-stamp program, and turning the whole thing over to the states via a block grant and/or federal assumption of Medicaid costs. Indeed, this was the most dramatic idea associated with Reagan’s much-discussed “New Federalism” policy emphasis.
It wasn’t liberal Democrats alone who blocked the welfare overhaul. The biggest stop sign was held up by Senator Bob Dole of Kansas in his dual roles as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee (with jurisdiction over AFDC) and of the Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Nutrition (with jurisdiction over food stamps). And Dole’s biggest beef was with the idea of messing with the food-stamp program, beloved of the powerful and bipartisan farm and retail lobbies.
A year later Dole played an even more public role in blocking food-stamp funding cuts, at one point calling the program “the greatest social program since Social Security.” Later on, in the 1990s, bipartisan farm-based support for food stamps ensured that the program survived the 1996 welfare reform legislation intact. It became routine to describe the program as lashed to farm subsidies as the beneficiary of an urban-rural alliance to enact five-year farm bills.
But the alliance has frayed for a host of reasons. After a few years of abatement after the 1996 legislation, ideological opposition to “welfare” — now, with the demise of AFDC, more centered on food stamps (renamed SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) — has intensified on the right, and both urban liberals and market-oriented conservatives have soured on farm subsidies. Liberal opposition to SNAP on the grounds that it subsidizes junk food and other poor nutritional choices has grown more visible as well.
So when Jeb Bush floated a new “welfare reform” proposal (to be outlined in greater detail at a conservative “anti-poverty” event in South Carolina this weekend), there were no immediate Farm Belt protests or even any suggestions the struggling presidential candidate was risking his already minuscule support in Iowa. Indeed, even among liberals, I gather the principal reaction is amusement that the new block grant Bush is proposing has the same name as his super-pac: Right to Rise (that’s a little unfair since the super-pac was in turn named after Bush’s supposed philosophy of upward mobility).
Campaign policy proposals are, of course, a dime a dozen, and if I were a lobbyist concerned with protecting SNAP I’d wouldn’t run around with my hair on fire at the prospect of “my” program being targeted by a guy whose team had spent 50 million smackers only to make him the least popular candidate in the whole GOP field.
Still, Jeb’s proposal is a sign of the times, and somewhere David Stockman is smiling.