Sweet Jesus: Trading Food Stamp Support for Massive Sugar Subsidies

"There are three things in the world that deserve no mercy: hypocrisy, fraud and tyranny"

~Frederick William Robertson

Last week's vote in the House of Representatives, significantly gutting the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program [SNAP], was both an historic and a close vote. Historic in the sense that it was stripped from the House version of the Farm Bill in July; an act not endorsed by either the Colorado Farm Bureau or the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. Close in the sense that in the final tally of 217-210: a different vote by any four members of the Republican caucus would have given us a different outcome.

In the final vote, Colorado's House delegation fell along party lines with Gardner, Tipton, Coffman and Lamborn voting to gut nutrition assistance; Polis, DeGette and Perlmutter opposing the cuts. The four Colorado Republican votes supported the elimination of $40 billion from the nutrition program – and further eroding the long-standing partnership between the domestic agricultural interests and the social justice advocacy groups in farm bill negotiations. Think about that for a moment: one percent of the House of Representatives body – a mere four votes – determining the fate of food security for 15 percent of all Americans, including 186,000 Colorado households. And given their response, little sleep was lost with their vote.

The July vote, which for the first time in decades separated the nutrition support from commodity subsidy payments by a score of 216-208, could also have produced a different outcome as well with just four Republicans voting differently. In that vote, only two of Colorado's seven House members, Gardner and Tipton, supported the House version even though it was opposed by both state farm organizations. 

The bill now heads to a conference committee where conferees, which includes Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, will attempt to reconcile the dramatic differences between the Senate version [$4 billion] and the House version [$40 billion] in proposed cuts to SNAP. They have until the end of September before the current farm bill expires to agree on the differences.

Don't look for this attack on our poor to be the last. The House conservatives are going after cuts to the poor and hungry because they believe it is politically safe to do so. It's moral hypocrisy. Our job as neighbors and members of Colorado's rural communities should be to make it politically unsafe for politicians to go after them. SNAP is the perfect target – complete with whom it serves being widely distorted by the media – and poses little political risk to the careers of most Republican members. 

The Durango Herald calls out Congressman Tipton as a "Reverse Robin Hood"

The farm bill that U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, proudly promotes on his website proposes slashing funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly “food stamps”) while increasing funds for crop insurance. This simply is choosing to subsidize one relatively wealthy constituency – farmers and agribusiness – at the expense of another less well off, the poor and working poor.

Prior to last week's vote, Congressman Cory Gardner had this to say:

“I’m anxious about it,” said Gardner, a few hours before the vote. “I’m glad we’re moving forward on a path that should complete the farm bill but the road has not been easy. I don’t want to be overconfident at any point.”

Congressman Doug Lamborn, a man who represents a district whose economy would collapse without the federal transfers of payments that come along with the local military complex couldn't help himself:  [the Congressman also has quite a "sweet tooth" for Sugar PACs, more on that later in this post]:

“These reforms are necessary to ensure that taxpayer dollars are protected from fraud and abuse,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs. “It is also not too much to ask that able-bodied adults without dependents should be required to work in order to collect food stamps.”

By reform. Lamborn means "let's annihilate the safety net for the least amongst us,while lavishing upon the domestic sugar market some of the most lucrative, taxpayer-subsidized programs in Washington."  You'd think that one of the most conservative members of Congress would reject such welfare, right? 

Not so much.  

Sugar makes up 1.9 percent of the value of U.S. agricultural production. Yet, the sugar industry spends 34 percent of the lobbying money and makes 55 percent of agricultural PAC contributions. Lamborn feeds at that proverbial trough. And being the good, solid fiscal conservative that he claims you'd think he'd reject the House version of the Farm Bill because it will actually increase farm program spending over time? 

Not so much.

He failed to make any mention that the House version strips out most of the 2018 sunset provisions contained in the previous version, making the subsidy ridden 2013 bill the new permanent law. The new permanent provisions increase farm spending: the new "shallow loss income entitlement programs," expanded crop insurance, the new profit margin insurance for dairy and the resurrected government-set prices. Last but not least, the market distorting sugar subsidies.

As of today, we have no direct comment by Congressman Mike Coffman. But, 135 recipients in his district have received just over $6 million in payments between 1995-2012 for retiring their land from production. And according to ERS data, Arapahoe County alone has nearly 50,000 SNAP recipients.

But I digress. Back to those dastardly frauds who are gaming the food stamp program:

Congressman Cantor weighed in as well: 

"No law-abiding beneficiary who meets the income and asset tests of the current program and is willing to comply with applicable work requirements will lose their benefits under the bill."

Too bad that's not true. Anyone looking for work and willing to take any job they can find, but can't land a job in three months, would see their food assistance ripped away. No one would know that from Cantor's soothing statement.

I've written before about the nexus between SNAP and rural Colorado residents, focusing on my home Congressional district, CD-4 and my Congressman, Cory Gardner. While Gardner doesn't personally enjoy the largess of the ag subsidy payments like Congressman Steve Fincher, who believes his form of social welfare is acceptable, my Congressman understands his family business, selling agricultural implements, benefits from a stable, predictable agricultural marketplace: less than 3,000 recipients in his home county have collected over one-half billion dollars in subsidy payments between 1995-2012. Yes. That's billion — with a b. 

Before I get too deep into this post I want to make one thing crystal clear:  I am an advocate of safety nets; I am supportive of the many federal mandates that have created significant markets for Colorado farmers, including the Renewable Fuels Standard. As a fifth-generation rural Coloradan, I steadfastly believe our opportunities outweigh our challenges. Today, we live in a global economy that has had significant consequences to both our labor pool and the movement and value of our produced goods around the world. It is both prudent and necessary to maintain national policy that buoys a domestic labor pool and supports that workforce with training and basic safety nets. It's one component of a system that builds the capacity for international commerce. The same system of support that provides us with a foundation for a predictable food supply.  These worlds can and do co-exist; neither can live in a vacuum.

The root of our challenge is jobs, or better said, lack thereof. Between the years 2000-2009, we lost 6 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. That number represents half of the unemployed looking for jobs today. Corporatists running Capitol Hill have convinced us this is an inevitability as we acquiesce in this global "Race to the Bottom." Although the "we must have cheap labor to compete" narrative is one we are fed a daily diet of, don't fall for it. It's false. The U.S. ranks 11th in the world on minimum wage – and our income disparity is widening. Germany builds twice the cars of U.S. automakers while paying its workers twice as much. The myth that low wages – which leads to a growing need for government support in the absence of a living wage – will devastate an economy – is "Washington-speak."

And by "Washington-speak" I mean, "lie."

Let's take a look at just one of the initiatives Congress has had the opportunity to address and compare it to the costs of subsidized corn and wheat production in CD4. For this example, I'll use the National Infrastructure Bank. At a proposed cost of $10 billion, the bank would create an estimated 500,000 jobs. For less than three times the money U.S. taxpayers have sent to Congressman Gardner's agricultural community, half-a-million new jobs could have been created. And while Speaker Boehner (who, to his credit, has not supported the stripping of gutting of the food assistance program from the Farm Bill) says this Congress should be judged by the number of laws they repeal, not the number of bills they pass. At last count, the number of failed attempts at repealing only one thing, the Afforadable Health Care Act, now stand at 42.  His number of repeals, which he says is his standard-bearer for how we should judge him, stands at zero.

A vote on a "Jobs Bill," anyone?

I'm not suggesting the presence of the subsidies is bad; but like any long-term federal support system, the contemporary application of a support system decades' old is in need of a serious overhaul. And that's a different animal than the 113th Congress is giving us. 

I'm attempting to put the hypocrisy in perspective: Some 12,000 recipients in Congressman Gardner's district have received in excess of $1.1 billion in Conservation Reserve Payments between 1995-2012. Farmers paid to "unemploy" their land, also known as, produce nothing for the marketplace. Sound familiar?

This past year, the USDA was forced to intervene into the domestic sugar market to prevent mass defaults of loans by the sugar industry, which included Colorado's Western Sugar Cooperative. The sugar industry has become addicted  to cheap government cash; during the past nine years, the government has lent $8.8 billion to sugar processors. The 2012 loans were granted with an interest rate of 1.125 percent to 1.250 percent. A clause — compliments of the Capitol Hill sugar lobby — in the subsidized loan program allows beet and cane sugar producers to walk away from their loans, forfeiting the collateral (sugar). Instead, it leaves the American taxpayer on the hook for the deficits in their loans. In an effort to prevent defaults with Colorado sugar producers, USDA purchased an estimated  $3.6 million of their sugar and sold it at a loss of $2.7 million [it was sold for $900,000] to Front Range Energy to produce ethanol fuel. Eastern plains farmers are the direct beneficiary of this federal intervention – complete with taxpayer dollars.

I hope by this point in this diary that any "secessionist, neo-conservative, flag-waving, free-market" resident of CD4 is becoming uncomfortable. We in rural Colorado are neither independent nor immune from our role in a statewide economy. As a state that sends slightly more money to the U.S. Treasury than we get in return, this means that all forms of federal transfers inside our boundaries are paid in full by all Colorado taxpayers. All of them. That means the $3.5 billion in agricultural subsidies mailed to CD4 were covered by predominantly non-rural Coloradans; the loan forfeiture program used by the eastern Colorado sugar producers was effectively funded by, you guessed it, non-rural Coloradans. The billions of dollars in wind farms already established in eastern Colorado to satisfy the Xcel renewable electricity standard? Made possible by non-rural Coloradans.

According to Hunger Free Colorado, of the 186,000 households in Colorado that rely on SNAP, 56 percent of them have children under the age of 18. Of the households, 82 percent had one full-time worker and 41 percent have at least one person with a disability. The question is whether the tens-of-thousands of children living in childhood poverty in his district even crossed his mind when he recently traveled on a junket to Ireland, where he received $166 a day for food and didn't pay a dime for the trip; for one meal alone they were given a $200 allowance. Yet, the idea of taking a vote that will take 55,000 Coloradans off of food assistance seems natural. Almost automatic.

The families of veterans, farmers, the disabled and the working poor are no longer visible to the most fringe elements of Congress. Not even when they are their own constituents.  And today, while we live with such societal challenges in CD-4 as the pervasive numbers of children living in childhood poverty, Cory is spending his leadership chits promoting Koch-backed out-of-state legislation, the “Aquatic Resource of National Importance Act".  No, this isn't a bill to restore the waters of Bonny State Park. This is a bill to gut the federal regulations preventing oil drilling in a community on the North Slope of Alaska, well over 2,000 miles from Congressman Gardner's hometown of Yuma.

As Frederick William Robertson said, "there should be no mercy for hypocrisy."

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