When Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missouri) was growing up in Texas, there was no indoor plumbing in his house until he turned eight. His father at times worked three jobs to support the family and on occasion they relied on food stamp assistance to get through hard times. Still, the elder Cleaver was able buy his family the home that he still lives in — and put his wife and four children through college.
Theirs is a story that is in one form or another being experienced by millions of Americans still recovering from the nation's economic decline. But if congressional Republicans get their way, millions will not have access to this critical safety net.
Following several hours of brutal debate over separating food stamps and other nutrition programs from the farm bill, House lawmakers prevailed by a narrow vote of 216-208. Cleaver called it the end of a "five-decade symbiosis between urban America and the farm community." Pairing farm subsidies and nutritional programs in the same bill has ensured support from both rural and urban lawmakers.
Last month, a farm bill following that tradition failed to pass in the House in a humiliating defeat for House Speaker John Boehner. Tea party Republicans felt proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program were not deep enough, while lawmakers across the aisle thought the cuts were draconian.
Democrats now suspect the GOP's next move will be to propose legislation making massive cuts to the SNAP and other nutrition programs.
"It says a lot about the values that we have as a country to give rich farmers a subsidy while we pick on people who need food stamps to eat," said Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-Louisiana). "What people don't pay attention to is the fact that you can't put food stamps in the bank and save them. It goes right smack dab into the economy to people who own stores and farmers who produce goods."
Richmond dismissed the argument by some that the end result could be fewer cuts to food stamps as "B.S. from the top to the bottom." If that were the case, he said, Republicans would have passed a food stamps bill first.
"Mr. Speaker, shame on the Republican majority and shame on you," said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-North Carolina). "What is it about [the] poor that you don't like and [that] you do not want to feed their families?"
"Republicans say they want to decrease poverty and hunger, yet they do just the opposite. Be assured, this bill will increase poverty and hunger; it's a moral disgrace," cried California Rep. Barbara Lee. "This is un-American, it's a shame and a disgrace. It's not only on days that we worship that we must remember to do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Cleaver, in a stirring, sermon-like speech, shared his family's story and said he hopes and prays that people who just need a little help can turn to the U.S. Congress.
The sad thing, Cleaver noted after the vote, is that after all the drama, in the end the bill is yet another example of measures the House leadership insists on passing even though it's a nonstarter in the Senate and President Obama has said he would veto legislation cutting food stamps if it ever reached his desk. He believes Republicans like to stage political theater to appeal to their base.
And even though they understood the bill is headed nowhere, it was important for the CBC to also play its role as the conscience of the Congress.
"This was one of the Congressional Black Caucus' finest hours," said Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings. "Under the leadership of Chairman [Marcia] Fudge, we stood up and sent a very loud and resounding message that we will not be silenced when Republicans try to kick children, seniors and those most vulnerable under the bus while at the same time they give subsidies to farmers who are already making hundreds of thousands of dollars, including themselves."
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