With little media scrutiny, the week before Father’s Day the House of Representatives spent 25 hours during a three day period debating over 60 amendments to a $125 billion Agriculture, Rural Development and FDA Appropriations (HR 2112) for 2012.
The spending bill included a massive $700 million cut to the once sacred WIC (women, infants and children) program which offers nutritional assistance to 10 million at-risk pregnant women and postpartum mother and children up to five years of age. With an estimated 350,000 recipients in jeopardy of losing benefits including very young malnourished children, Republican funding for WIC is inadequate to provide for the existing need, especially during the current financial debacle. The proposed Ryan budget (of Medicare voucher fame) would cut WIC $833 million.
Suffering cuts as to render some programs effectively dysfunctional, the spending bill included a devastating $285 million cut to the FDA jeopardizing food safety inspections. A Democratic-sponsored amendment to restore $1 million to fund the FDA's new regulatory authority over raw and processed food industries was defeated 193 - 226 with 12 Republicans voting with the Democrats. Additional cuts included a $170 million cut to Emergency Food Assistance which provides groceries to food banks serving low income citizens including seniors, a $20 million cut to rural development low income housing and small business loans, a decimated cut for the fledgling Rural Energy for America program, a $40 billion cut to the Commodity Supplemental Food Program which provides emergency food assistance, a $354 million cut to the Agriculture Research Service and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture which funds food safety research and University extension Ag programs and blocks implementation of new school lunch standards adopted in the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act.
On occasion, House Democrats with a strong progressive caucus are capable of heroic action and this time, they stepped up to the plate citing ‘reckless’ cuts to anemic children who are familiar with hunger as a constant way of life while reciting numerous Biblical quotes. Democrats offered a vigorous defense of WIC citing the moral responsibility of elected officials and the expected dire consequences to the country’s most vulnerable children as Federal and international nutrition programs were on the chopping block.
While the Appropriations bill was in the full Committee, Rep. Rosa deLauro (CT) offered a successful amendment with bipartisan support to increase WIC $147 Million. Just prior to Floor consideration of the bill, the Rules Committee stripped out deLauro’s already adopted amendment setting the stage for a robust Floor debate. Rep. John Conyers (MI) citing four decades in Congress summed up the Democrat’s passionate resistance to WIC cuts as “an all time low” as he challenged ‘anyone with a conscience” that would result in more hunger for the poorest and neediest children already suffering from malnutrition. It is simply un-American,” Conyers said “immoral, heartless and unconscionable to take food away from the mouths of hungry children in the name of deficit reduction. Ladies and gentlemen have we no shame.”
In an example of politics at its finest, Democrats with short-term memory loss repeatedly made the point that one week of Bush tax breaks for the wealthy would pay for one year of WIC payments. With a pitiful maximum payment of $42 a month in some states, a 6 – 12 month eligibility period and a politically vulnerable constituency, WIC is an easy target for balancing the budget by politicians of both parties.
Republicans whose children have full bellies responded about ‘low priority programs’ as if the subject of debate were inanimate objects rather than the lives of American mothers and their children repeated their talking points as ad nauseum mantras - “stop spending money we don’t have,” “we’re borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar we spend,” and ‘we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”
In a squabble that weaved through the debate, Republicans took delight in reminding Democrats that in 2010 $562 million was deleted from the WIC budget by the Obama Administration. Democrats responded that the fund transfer was due to fewer participants with unspent funds at year’s end and that no recipients lost their benefits. R’s argued that it was the Democrats who drained the contingency fund of any carryover monies for future use.
With no reference to Scripture, Rep. Paul Brown (GA) distinguished himself as a first class Doofus by offering multiple amendments including further cuts to WIC, reduced funding for the Food for Peace program, elimination of international food and child nutrition programs and cuts to USDA office rent, building maintenance and vehicle fleet. Broun, who was a General Physician before election to the House, was challenged by Rep. Norm Dicks (WA) for actions incompatible with the Hippocratic Oath to ‘do no harm.’ Fortunately, Broun’s Republican colleagues joined Democrats in voting down every one of Broun’s amendments.
The Food for Peace program (which feeds an estimated 5 million children in foreign countries) survived at least three more amendments from Republican budget-cutters.
Neither did Rep. Virginia Fox (NC) who bears a striking resemblance to Mrs. Doofus quote the Bible when her first amendment to cut $82 million from breast feeding programs lost in a bi-partisan vote (306 – 119). Her second amendment to eliminate funding for locally grown food programs (ie farmer’s markets) narrowly succeeded with 17 R’s voting with Democrats, 201 against 212 amendment supporters.
Not to miss an opportunity to deprive women their constitutionally-protected right to choose, Rep. Steve King (Iowa) offered an amendment banning telemed communication funds from being used to prescribe RU486, known as the ‘abortion pill.” King’s amendment passed with 240 votes including 13 Democrats and 178 against including 9 R’s. Just when you might think that King could not outdo his reputation as mean-spirited, he offered an amendment to ban payment on the final settlement to black farmers who had been discriminated against by USDA. The suit had been settled long ago although some payments remain to be distributed. King’s amendment lost 262 -156. .
. In another attempt to use a budget bill to legislate policy, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana offered a successful amendment to ban Federal funds to implement the USDA’s climate change plans with 238 (including 10 Democrats) vs 179 against. The voice vote accepting Rep. Don Young's (AK) amendment to prohibit FDA funds from approving genetically engineered salmon showed that Republicans can appreciate the health benefit of Omega 3. .
There were no hallelujahs as amendments offered by Rep. Shirley Jackson Lee (TX) addressing ‘food insecurity’ issues and ‘food deserts’ with a lack of access to fresh healthy foods for rural and big-city urban Americans affecting 24 million Americans were turned back. Amendments in support of urban community gardens and cooperative farm programs for low income farmers were also defeated.
One explanation for irrational Republican intransigence on issues that no thoughtful legislator should oppose, besides loyalty to their Corporate donors and in some cases a racial bias, is plain and simple politics. Petty and small-minded, it is not in the best interests of the R’s to agree with or do anything that makes the Democrats or the President look good. That is how our political class functions today and why it is virtually impossible to accomplish anything of importance in Congress.
The Ag Appropriation included a 50% cut to the Commodity Future Trade Commission (CFTC) which rarely shows signs of life yet has oversight authority on the speculative oil market, regulation of the derivative market and new regulatory authority in the President’s financial reform legislation approved in 2010. Not content with a budget reduction from $308 million to $172 million, Rep. Garrett (NJ)'s amendment to delay regulation of the derivative market and blocked funding for the CFTC in response to banker complaints passed on a 230 - 189 vote.
The final amendment was introduced by newly elected Rep. Kathy Hochul from New York’s overwhelmingly Republican 29th District. In her initiation on the House floor, Hochul did a great job attempting to restore funds to the CFTC citing the need for ‘law and order’ on Wall Street and oversight of the oil speculation market. Rep. Kingston called her amendment ‘unnecessary’ as R’s defeated the rider 233 to 185.
After Hochul’s Amendment, the Agriculture spending bill was adopted on final passage 233 – 200. Sixteen R’s voted against passage and 1 Democrat voted in favor. .
While the President has raised some objections to the House bill, he has given no indication of a veto. The Bill now goes to the Senate where frightened Democrats who would not know how to fight if they were given boxing gloves will be in damage-control mode after which the House and Senate bills will go to a conference committee (behind closed doors) for Reconciliation before proceeding to the President's desk for a signature or veto.