A Lesson in Humanity From Bob Dole

The former Republican leader worked with one of the Senate’s most liberal members on hunger issues.

Lasting legacy: Dole takes pride in his work on the ADA.
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
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Jerry Hagstrom
Dec. 15, 2013, 7:11 a.m.

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.

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