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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Farm Subsidies and Food Stamps

Aside from Medicaid, another low-income safety-net program that may be in the administration’s sights is the food stamp program. Haven’t heard about that? Well, take a look at the latest leak of soon-to-be-announced initiatives in the administration’s proposed budget, an attack on large farm subsidies.
The Bush budget will apparently include a “cap” on the maximum values of farm subsidies that any one producer can harvest, an idea that will (rightly) get some progressive support. But the proposal will run directly into already-announced opposition in Congress, especially from Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran of MS, who is mobilizing the powerful farm lobby to defeat it.
And that’s where food stamps come in: Congress organizes its budget and appropriations work by federal department, and by a department-oriented system of budget “functions” that track the jurisdiction of congressional appropriations subcommittees. If the White House and the GOP congressional leadership can succeed in setting lower targets for USDA spending, then farm subsidies will be placed into a direct competition with food stamps for funding. I obviously can’t prove it, but it may well be that the administration is deliberately planning a two-cushion shot to go after food stamps while shifting the blame to Congress.
This stupid budget allocation system, reinforced by the jurisdictional boundaries of congressional authorization and appropriations subcommittees, is why cutting federal spending is almost never a matter of broadly looking across spending categories and separating the sheep from the goats. Instead, it’s zero-sum game in which Hill Barons are provided with some sort of Divine Right share of spending, and then asked to divvy it up among their “constituencies.” If that means screwing food stamp recipients to protect farmers, so be it; that’s a “USDA budget decision.”
And that’s why Democrats should not only play chess rather than checkers in anticipating the likely impact of budget “proposals” that seem to be remote from their dearest priorities; they should also get behind serious budget reforms that end this kind of mindless tunnel-vision that prevents the establishment of real national priorities.

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