Could former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole be a role model in convincing a new generation of conservative House Republicans to vote for a farm bill that cuts food stamps by only $8 billion over 10 years?
On Wednesday, rumors were flying that the bill's four lead negotiators — House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss. — had settled on cutting the $80 billion-per-year program by less than $1 billion per year rather than anything close to the $39 billion over 10 years that House Republicans voted for last summer. At the same time, Dole was back on Capitol Hill to receive an award from World Food Program USA for his role in alleviating world hunger.
Lucas, Peterson, Stabenow, and Cochran all say they expect the conference report to be brought up in both chambers in January, though they have declined to discuss any of their agreements. But on the sidelines of the Dole event in the Kennedy Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building, Rep Jim McGovern, D-Mass., told National Journal last week that he expects the cut to be $8 billion. McGovern, one of the most vigorous antihunger advocates in Congress and a conferee on the bill, believes there should be no cut because food-stamp beneficiaries already experienced a cut on Nov. 1 when the boost from the Recovery Act expired and the long-term unemployed will see their benefits end on Dec. 28 since Congress failed to extend them.
"It will be difficult," McGovern said, for members to go home for the holidays and tell low-income or no-income people to expect more bad news.
McGovern's opposition to a farm bill that, as he puts it, increases hunger, raises the likelihood that he will vote against the bill and the question of how many Democrats might follow him. But the bigger issue is how many of the House Republican majority will vote for a bill with only a small cut and few of the policy changes that they vigorously advocated.
Conservatives wanted to reduce benefits and cut as many as 4 million people off food stamps by eliminating the ability of states to adjust the federal definition of poverty or to ease asset tests and even allow states to keep part of the money saved by kicking people off the program. None of those ideas would fly with the Senate, and the conference leaders appear to have settled on a program that would increase to $20 per year the amount states have to provide people in heating and energy assistance for those payments to trigger higher food stamp benefit levels. Programs to try to make sure the states help food-stamp beneficiaries find jobs and training will probably also be added.
During the Dole ceremony, Vice President Joe Biden, who presented the award, and others made much of the partnership between the Kansas Republican and the late Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., in passing both domestic and international food-assistance programs.
But Biden, who served in the Senate with both men, noted that McGovern and Dole had provided individual leadership on hunger issues before there was a national consensus on hunger but that it was easier for McGovern as a liberal to deal with the issue than for Dole, a conservative, to deal with his own party.
"Bob, you got the living hell kicked out of you," Biden said.
The 90-year-old Dole, physically frail but speaking with a strong voice, said there seemed to be more bipartisan friendliness in Congress when he was a member than there is today, but he also acknowledged that McGovern had led him to understand the hunger issue.
"I was a skeptic, but after being with McGovern for about three days I understood we had a real problem in America," Dole said, speaking of hearings he and McGovern had held. He added that after McGovern lost his 1972 presidential campaign, the two of them had worked more on international hunger.
"I considered myself a traditional American conservative and he considered himself a liberal, but we did not talk about politics," he said. Rather, they would discuss girls in Africa not going to school and boys going to school but getting only one meal a day.
But Dole also recalled that he and McGovern "knew there were budgetary limits" because the people who testify before congressional committees always want more than Congress can provide.
These days the impression has been created that Democrats do not favor any cuts, but in fact Stabenow and Lucas have followed the McGovern-Dole model of recognizing "budgetary limits."
Rather than going along with antihunger advocates who wanted no cuts whatsoever, Stabenow has said all year that lottery winners should not get benefits, that there should be stricter rules on college students, and that the way the states have sent tiny amounts of money to people under the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program is a "loophole." Peterson has repeatedly criticized the structure of the food-stamps program, saying there should be a wholesale rewrite of the eligibility requirements to bring them up to date and then scale back the states' ability to adjust them.
As the farm-bill vote approaches, House members might keep both sides of Dole's world view in mind as they consider how to vote on the legislation. Lucas, Peterson, Stabenow, and Cochran do seem to be acting in the bipartisan spirit of McGovern and Dole.
Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at www.HagstromReport.com.