Portly Republicans Squeeze the Poor

110705 article conason Portly Republicans Squeeze the PoorSuddenly, after years of carefree spending on the equivalent of the next generation’s credit cards, Republican leaders in Congress are pretending to worry about “fiscal responsibility.” Evidently, they have heard from angry constituents who wonder about bridges to nowhere and subsidies to oil companies.

Rather than demonstrating fiscal prudence, however, the Congressional leadership has merely proven itself to be callous as well as corruptible. The Republicans’ proposed budget cuts in food stamps, health care, student loans and other programs that help poor and working families will scarcely reduce long-term federal deficits at all—while inflicting severe hardships on hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.

Indeed, this newfound concern for tight budgetary control seems more like an excuse to inflict pain on those who cannot defend themselves. Meanwhile, the urge to reward those who already have too much continues, unbounded by any fiscal worries.

Unmoved by the plight of the poor—who are growing poorer and hungrier, according to the latest government data—Congressional leaders last week decided that the best way to pare spending is to reduce the number of families that qualify for food stamps. A bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee on Oct. 28 would make roughly 300,000 Americans ineligible to receive food stamps and cut the program by about $850 million over the next five years.

The fiscal impact of all those cuts will be negligible, especially compared with the subsidies that these same Christian gentlemen insist on providing to energy, agribusiness and other major interests. But these gratuitous acts of unkindness will surely harm the unfortunate children who have less to eat as a result.

By lovely coincidence, the Department of Agriculture released a report the same day showing that the number of people who went hungry last year increased by more than half a million. If anything, those statistics suggest that Congress should be expanding rather than diminishing the food-stamp program. The spectacle of Dennis Hastert, the extra-portly House Speaker, and his well-nourished caucus taking food away from the poor while bragging about their budgetary prowess is beyond disgusting.

Instead, they should shut down their subsidized lunchrooms and climb onto treadmills—while disgorging the pay raises they keep voting themselves.

Of course, these “compassionate conservatives” did not content themselves with cutting food stamps. They are also contemplating cutbacks in Medicaid, the health-insurance program that serves the poor, specifically targeting millions of low-income children for reduced services and co-payments. Kids living in poverty are going to be deprived of eyeglasses, hearing aids and other crucial care.

School lunches are also going to be cut for some of those little losers whose families need food stamps, incidentally. And kids who need child support will also be out of luck, because the powerful House Ways and Means Committee has determined to cut back enforcement efforts against deadbeat parents. The Republicans, who deem themselves “pro-family,” are determined to squeeze a few more bucks from low-income foster families and student-loan recipients as well.

What these politicians will not consider, as they ponder legislation between fund-raising banquets and golf outings, is any measure that might demand sacrifice from those who can well afford it. That would be biting the hands of those who provide the payoffs, in campaign contributions and defense funds and all kinds of ethically dubious freebies. Believe it or not, they intend to give still more tax breaks and subsidies to the nation’s wealthiest citizens and corporations.

Consider the energy industry, which has just reported record profits while gouging the public with the highest gasoline and heating-oil prices ever seen in this country. Three months ago, President Bush signed legislation passed by the Congressional Republicans that awards $14.5 billion in subsidies to the oil and gas industry. But that wasn’t enough, because in early October the House passed still another round of oil subsidies.

That appalling series of rip-offs got the attention of a few Republican leaders, who have meekly asked the oil industry to build more refineries. They know better than to demand a windfall-profits tax, or to seize those subsidies. Food snatched from the mouths of poor children will help pay for still fatter oil profits.

But oilmen aren’t the only beneficiaries of this Congress of the absurd. While households with annual incomes above $1 million have reaped an average benefit of more than $100,000 from the Republican tax cuts, the Congressional leaders, in their wisdom, want to award still more breaks to that tiny aristocracy of wealth. According to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, the plan is to strip out a pair of obscure tax laws signed by the President’s father in 1990. Repealing those provisions would lavish another $20,000 a year on households with incomes over $1 million—at a cost to the Treasury of nearly $150 billion over the next 10 years.

No wonder they have to cut those wasteful food stamps.