Stand up to these clowns! Why Democrats won on debt limit but blew it on food stamps

When the left showed rare resolve on the debt ceiling, the GOP promptly folded. There's a lesson here

Published February 14, 2014 6:17PM (EST)

  (AP/Timothy D. Easley/Reuters/Adrees Latif/AP/Tony Gutierrez)
(AP/Timothy D. Easley/Reuters/Adrees Latif/AP/Tony Gutierrez)

For Democrats, the past two weeks have been a study in contrasts. This week, they implacably resisted another pointless debt ceiling charade, and House Majority Leader John Boehner backpedaled. In other words, they showed rare resolve and were promptly rewarded.

Yet in the preceding weeks, the majority of congressional Democrats — including more than 80 percent of Senate Democrats — voted for a farm bill that cuts food stamps, an unconscionable action that reconfirmed the party's moral bankruptcy. At the bill signing last week, President Obama, omitting any mention of the reduction in benefits, mendaciously claimed the legislation “includes protections for vulnerable Americans." While no one will get booted from the food stamp rolls, the more than $8 billion in benefit reductions (spaced out over 10 years) will adversely affect an estimated 850,000 households in at least 15 states. If Democrats have tired of debt ceiling histrionics, they haven’t deemed food stamps off limits. On display were Democrats' willingness to punish the poor, their “we're still better than Republicans” apologias, and their truly astonishing inability to articulate a counternarrative. In contrast to debt ceiling steadfastness, here incompetence and iniquity abounded.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cuts were achieved by effectively killing “Heat and Eat," a policy under which beneficiaries in some states use proof of heating assistance to increase their monthly SNAP allotment. While the cuts constitute a mere 1 percent of the food stamp budget, current funding levels for SNAP are already inadequate: 90 percent of benefits are exhausted by the third week of the month. In addition, food stamp recipients have already plummeted over what MSNBC reporter Ned Resnikoff has called the “hunger cliff,” an across-the-board reduction in SNAP benefits imposed late last year. The cascade of cuts only compounds the existing hunger problem. U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that in 2012, 14.5 percent of American households were food insecure at some point. This is the cruel reality: In the world's richest country, the right to be free of debilitating hunger still hasn't been won.

As for the farm bill, this wasn't Democrats bailing on the public option or giving in to Wall Street. They didn't have to fend off an indomitable constituency or initiate structural change. Food stamps are the paradigmatic palliative, meant to soften the sting of our immiseration-inducing economic system. Its benefits are already so meager they barely reduce workers' subordination to the whims of the labor market. Even substantially more generous payments would hardly be revolutionary. And still, most Democrats were nevertheless swayed that the paring was justified on its own — it “probably makes the program more legitimate than it was,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said — or wasn't egregious enough to nix the entire bill.

Even a majority of Democratic senators in "Heat and Eat" states voted in favor of the farm bill. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist who caucuses with the Democrats, backed the legislation despite protestations that “it is both morally and economically wrong to cut assistance to families in a very difficult economy.” According to the same statement, the staunch progressive cast his “aye” vote after the state's governor assured him Vermonters who use the “Heat and Eat” program would be shielded from the cuts. So much for solidarity. (Sanders' press office didn't respond to an attempt for additional comment.)

Compromise is an inescapable part of the political process, especially under divided government. But admitting the necessity of compromise says little about the form compromise must take. By accepting the terms Republicans laid out — cuts are necessary, fraud is a problem — and then inching toward something less abhorrent, Democrats ensured they'd stay inside the appalling perimeter the GOP had sketched out, even if they reached the periphery. They claimed victory for whittling down the cuts' magnitude when they never should've accepted the premise.

Michigan's Debbie Stabenow, Democratic senator and the chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, said in an MSNBC interview the day the bill passed the Senate, "to have credibility, I said, of course I would address fraud and abuse." She also noted the egregious provisions — drug testing for recipients, for example — originally contained in the House bill that were excised during the conference committee. The final bill also didn't contain the tens of billions in food stamp cuts the House GOP sought. For Michigan's junior senator and many of her partisan colleagues, these were accomplishments.

Logically, of course, there's no way out of this tactical labyrinth. Democrats can always position themselves a smidgen to the left of Republicans and say, with accuracy, that they are more progressive than the malevolent GOP. The best Democrats can deliver, in this rightward-veering scenario, is an outcome previously beyond the pale. Indeed, if preventing schemes to humiliate the dispossessed merits celebration, if increasing insecurity and deprivation in some states instead of 50 warrants applause, then ardent Democrats should do some soul-searching. If making sure the most vulnerable have enough to eat isn't a desideratum of Democratic Party membership, the party is utterly useless; they can drop all pretensions to care about poverty or inequality or injustice.

In addition to being morally repellent, Democrats were strategically daft. The idea that expunging SNAP of perceived loopholes would temper conservative hostility to the social safety net is absurd. Conservatives, as a rule, don't want to preserve food stamps. They object to SNAP and other government programs because they view them as “free money,” redistribution from the deserving strivers to the undeserving loafers. Rightists haven't tarred Obama as the “food stamp president” because of endemic fraud, but because they view the program itself as inherently illegitimate, as enabling the slovenly. These are the “gifts” Mitt Romney excoriated. When Stabenow and others lent credence to the idea that food stamps are in need of trimming rather than immediate expansion, they emboldened reactionaries who, quite literally, wish more people suffered pangs of hunger.

Contrast this with Democrats' belated recognition that ultra-right House Republicans didn't have the numbers — and Boehner the reckless insanity — to credibly engage in debt ceiling shenanigans. Once Democrats ruled a non-raising a non-option— something they could have easily done with SNAP cuts — the theatrics stopped. 

One could argue economic elites are petrified of debt-ceiling-engendered financial market turmoil in a way that smaller food stamp allotments don't rankle them. No doubt this is correct. It's axiomatic that political actors are generally indifferent to the concerns and needs of non-powerful constituencies. Efforts to limit crop insurance to non-wealthy farmers failed. Food stamps beneficiaries, having no well-connected lobbyists to dispatch, had to rely on the conscience of their elected officials. And broadly speaking, the interests of the affluent and the interests of the disadvantaged are irreconcilable: The former have to relinquish power and resources so the latter can lead dignified, autonomous lives.

But what's maddening is, in the case of SNAP cuts, the interests of the powerful and the interests of the vulnerable weren't mutually exclusive — at least not entirely. If Congresspeople wished to shovel more cash to rich farmers, the power dynamics weren't such that a corresponding SNAP reduction was invariably in the offing. Democrats could've demanded expansion from the beginning, knowing that even if it was whittled down in negotiations, they'd head off any curtailments; Obama could've refused to sign any legislation with reductions. Again, the debt ceiling win is instructive: Democratic leaders, recognizing they had the upper hand both politically and morally, finally said they wouldn't permit any discussion on the matter. The moral case for disallowing food stamp cuts was equally strong, the opposition more pliable, yet all many Democrats could do was rationalize their capitulation. 

The struggle for a more decent, humane world is unceasing. Gains are never permanent; new baselines are always subject to contestation. But food stamps should be one of the easy ones. Maintaining current funding levels is the kind of thing liberals and leftists shouldn't have to mobilize against to prevent. When you vote for Democrats, however business-friendly, however weak-kneed, you should know they're going to hold the line on food stamps. That they won't — not just the centrists, but even the guy who calls himself a socialist — and accept “fraud and abuse” as the lingua franca of the debate is dispiriting in the extreme. Indeed, it tells you all you need to know about the state of the Democratic Party: Things once sacrosanct are disposable.

As a result, liberals and leftists cannot take for granted that, even on the most rudimentary issues, Democrats won't be the enemies of progress.

By Shawn Gude

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