One Republican’s struggle to cut federal nutrition benefits shows what’s wrong with the GOP’s approach to policy making.
The Washington Post recently published an in-depth look at Republican Congressman Steve Southerland’s crusade to impose major cuts to the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formally known as food stamps. While the piece is a good look into the world view of a lot of conservatives it’s most interesting aspect is how it inadvertently shows what’s wrong with the GOP’s approach to policy making.
Southerland comes off as a dyed in the wool idealist throughout the piece. He is not just interested in cutting the SNAP program to score political points or because he thinks it wasteful. Instead he sees the expansion of the SNAP program over the last decade as a kind of moral crisis for the nation as a whole. As he tells a number of his Republican colleagues on the way to a Washington D.C. job training center, “The explosion of food stamps in this country is not just a fiscal issue for me. This is a defining moral issue of our time.”
Southerland’s conservative idealism also shines through his analysis of our country’s economic problems. As he sees it, federal programs like SNAP are the cause of things like poverty and unemployment, not a reasonable response to them. As Southerland put it to the author of the piece, “It’s a travesty, what we’ve done.” Meaning it was the federal government and its handouts that created poverty and unemployment in his Florida district.
This is a standard conservative argument in American politics: government programs turn able bodied Americans into the dependent “takers” of Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent fame, and it is pretty typical of the rhetoric of contemporary Republican politicians. But what is also pretty typical of today’s GOP is even though Southerland obviously knows a lot about SNAP policy, he still breezes past some of the key details that explain what is going on with the SNAP program. Southerland has consistently argued that SNAP is a massively expanding entitlement that’s “growing into oblivion.” But as Slate’s David Weigel pointed out this just isn’t true, “Go find a chart of food stamp usage and the surge looks more recent. In 2003, around 22 milion Americans were on food stamps. In 2008, it rose to 28 million. From then to now, the years of the phony economic recovery, it rose to 47 million.”
SNAP isn’t “growing into oblivion,” it’s acting like a safety net ought to act. During bad economic times it expands to cover more people, and during good economic times it shrinks back down, not unlike unemployment insurance. Meanwhile while Southerland’s party has been fighting to stop out of control entitlement spending it also voted to expand agriculture subsidies which are a hugely expensive entitlement of another sorts. But instead of confronting this contradiction, Southerland just ignores while he continues to try and kick 3.9 million people off of the SNAP program.
But this is hardly the biggest blind spot for Southerland. While he is working 14 hour days to build support for his proposed cuts to SNAP, he seems uninterested in getting Democrats on board with his ideas. This is problematic to say the least as any cuts will have to get through the democratically controlled Senate and be signed into law by President Obama. And to make matters worse, they are very much opposed to his ideas. How does he get around this problem? We never really learn, the obvious solution would be to trade his proposed cuts for something that the President wants. Short term economic stimulus through infrastructure projects for example. But he doesn’t seem to grasp that, or doesn’t want to consider that route and so he spends all his time talking to other conservatives about the vital need for SNAP cuts, while he ignores the other parts of government he needs to get on board.
Southerland is not some anonymous hack, he’s probably the GOP’s foremost expert on the SNAP program and food stamps policy. In fact House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called him “a passionate true believer” on the issue. But if he can’t confront the demographic realities of why SNAP has expand in recent years, and if he can’t find a way to do some basic horse trading with the Democrats and President Obama, then who possibly could? I can’t think of anyone, making all his hard work pretty pointless.
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