This remarkably mean-spirited food-stamp bill, brought up on September 19th, was passed by a vote of 217 to 210 – even narrower and more partisan than the vote on the farm bill. Every Democrat who voted opposed the Southerland amendment, and they were joined by 15 Republicans, most from districts in the North that weren't safe Republican seats.
The amendment raised an obscure second-term member from Panama City, Florida, a conservative area in the Panhandle, to sudden prominence. But there's strong evidence that Southerland was the instrument of others – in particular, Cantor. Cantor, along with Paul Ryan and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, was a co-founder of the "Young Guns," formed for the 2008 election to search out promising conservative candidates – among them Southerland – and groom them for election. Those who won, and many did in 2010, were expected, according to the Young Guns website, to "play a vital role in keeping our Republican team on offense and help build a lasting and productive Republican majority for the American people."
Southerland has received contributions from Koch Industries and Cantor's Every Republican Is Crucial PAC, which contributed more than $2 million to congressional candidates, most of them highly conservative. Like many Tea Party members, Southerland had no political experience before he ran for the House in 2010, defeating a long-serving conservative Democrat. A prosperous inheritor of a family funeralhome business – his estimated worth in 2010 was nearly $3 million – Southerland is given to homilies about the virtue of hard work and self-reliance. A few days after the food-stamp bill passed, he told a group of unemployed people at a job-training center in Washington, D.C., "I believe work is the greatest gift that you will receive."
The amendment with Southerland's name on it had actually been written by a mysterious and highly conservative organization of 17 state secretaries of human services and workforce agencies called the Secretary's Innovation Group, or SIG, that appeared out of nowhere a couple of years ago and started issuing policy papers and testifying before congressional committees. The thrust of their work reflected the arch-conservative views of Jason Turner, the group's executive director, who had published his own policy papers. In February of this year, Turner testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, where he presented what was to become the Southerland amendment. Southerland was so excited about these ideas that Cantor made him the public face of these schemes for throwing more people off food-stamp rolls and making them inaccessible to many, many others who would otherwise qualify.
As is typical of the groups on the far right that have sprung up or gained new prominence in the past few years, SIG has connections with the conservative Heritage Foundation, where Turner is a visiting fellow. Heritage is run by Jim DeMint, the former South Carolina senator who had managed to annoy many of his Republican colleagues by promoting Tea Party candidates for the Senate (and in the process blowing opportunities for the Republicans to take several seats) before resigning his own seat to take leadership of Heritage earlier this year. Not exactly of a scholarly bent, DeMint has steered Heritage in a far more political direction than before: He was a mentor to Ted Cruz as Cruz conducted his bootless effort to force the defunding of Obamacare, by threatening to shut down the government. Heritage is funded by (unsurprisingly) the Koch brothers and some of the nation's largest corporations, among them defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, insurance companies such as Allstate, and drug manufacturers like GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer Inc.
So-called reform groups like SIG use anodyne language that masks their true intent: For example, SIG's stated goal in regard to food stamps is "promoting employment and self-sufficiency for able-bodied, working-age recipients." Who's to argue against that? The problem was its proposals have nothing to do with helping the unemployed find jobs. In connection with its most unusual bribery system, it allowed states to deny or terminate an entire family's food-stamp benefits if a parent wasn't employed or enlisted in a job-training program – even if there weren't any jobs or training programs in the vicinity. It forbade waivers, thus closing the trap on the able-bodied unemployed in areas where jobs are scarce.
In sum, the House-passed food-stamp bill would throw 3.8 million low-income Americans off the food-stamp program in 2014, while reducing benefits to many others. In a statement he issued at the time, Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, ripped into the Republicans for their misleading portrayal of their "reforms" by adding "work requirements." On the contrary, he said, "These provisions would end food-stamp assistance for large numbers of people who want to work, are looking for jobs and will take a workfare or job-training placement, but who cannot find a job in a weak labor market."
Where does all this leave not just the food-stamp program but also the country? Both have been the subject, or the victim, of narrow-gauged fanatics who observe no boundaries and in their recklessness have left a lot of wreckage in their wake. The Senate has passed a unified farm bill containing the food-stamp program. The bill cuts $4 billion from the program by addressing a widely recognized, unintended loophole in the way benefits are paid out. House-Senate negotiations are to occur, and Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow says that the issue won't be over the difference between the figures of $4 billion and $39 billion, but over the policies that produced those figures. She had no intention of meeting the House halfway or accepting its extremist policies. The bribery provision, she says, leaves her speechless.
Whatever happens in the short term, the longer-term question is whether the damage done to many areas of governance and policy that reflect long-standing American values and the delicate balances that have kept American democracy going can ever be repaired.
This story is from the November 7th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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