Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Rotten harvest


OUR OPINION: House farm bill shows futility of political stunts

Here they go again: The House of Representatives managed to pass a farm bill last week that has absolutely no chance of becoming law. The sheer futility of this political stunt resembles the House’s multiple repeals of Obamacare, a variety of anti-abortion measures, and the ongoing approval of immigration bills that lack a basic citizenship provision.

None of them are going anywhere — fortunately — and all of them are a waste of time. But enacting laws no longer seems to be the objective of many House members. The point is to give House Republicans affiliated with the tea party an opportunity to boast of a political victory, thus letting them dodge a primary challenge from the right in the next election.

These political games carry a price. At the end of the day, Congress manages to do absolutely nothing to deal with serious national problems and people get hurt. The farm bill is a perfect example of how the public winds up paying for congressional inaction.

The first version went down in flames in the House because Republicans demanded draconian cuts in food stamp benefits that Democrats couldn’t support. But some Republicans wanted even bigger cuts, and they joined Democrats in voting No. In a fit of pique, GOP members then passed a second version that simply eliminated food stamps.

Speaker John Boehner said the House would take up food stamps later — hardly a reassuring promise.

In Miami-Dade County, where some 587,000 people — about 21 percent of the population — rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, the program’s elimination would be a disaster. A recent count showed participants received $894,247,000 in benefits, or about $144 per person per month. Statewide, Florida receives nearly $6 billion in food stamp benefits.

That money is not only a vital lifeline for the most impoverished. It also supports the community in general, grocery stores and food producers. Some farmers’ markets, like Overtown’s Roots of the City, allow shoppers to buy up to $20 worth of fruits and vegetables for only $10 using SNAP dollars. This is produce grown by residents and volunteers on several small urban farms in Overtown, thus providing a double benefit from SNAP funds in the inner city.

Republican House critics claim the food stamp program is larded with fraud and waste, possibly as much as $750 million per year. Perhaps, but the same can be said for other government programs — including defense — and that doesn’t prevent them from being funded year after year. Getting rid of food stamps altogether is the wrong solution. And the bill hastily drafted and approved in the House locks into place a $9 billion increase in crop insurance programs for 10 years that protects farmers from market fluctuations, among other things. Result: Poor families are ignored, agribusiness gets a big boost.

At this point, the best hope is that farm interests and supporters of the SNAP program join hands to persuade Congress to come to its senses. Now that the House has passed a bill, bad as it is, Senate and House negotiators have an opportunity to negotiate a compromise version that restores funding for food stamps at an acceptable level.

There is a case to be made for a wider, sensible overhaul of the food stamp program to reduce fraud and waste, as well as a companion bill to reduce farm subsidies, without gutting either program. But that will have to wait until better days, when the spirit of compromise and common sense returns to Capitol Hill.

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