A couple of weeks ago, the farm bill failed. The Republicans are now trying to pass it in more digestible chunks. The current version split off food stamps in order to pass a bill to keep farm subsidies going. The Republicans are holding out for a food stamp bill that has cuts. Maybe. Douthat:
It should go without saying that America’s agriculture policy has always been a terrible, stupid, counterproductive exercise in self-dealing cronyism. But when House Republicans severed the traditional connection, arbitrary but politically effective, between farm subsidies and food stamps, it briefly seemed like they were looking for an opportunity to put libertarian populist principle into practice, by separating both outlays in order to trim or reform both separately. But no — instead they were just making it easier for the party’s congressmen to vote for a bloated, awful big government program that benefits mostly-Republican states and interest groups, knowing that they weren’t also voting for something that pays out to the (mostly-Democratic) poor as well.
This is egregious whatever you think of the food stamp program, and it’s indicative of why the endless, often-esoteric debates about the Republican future actually matter to our politics. Practically any conception of the common good, libertarian or communitarian or anywhere in between, would produce better policy than a factionally-driven approach of further subsidizing the rich while cutting programs for the poor. The compassionate-conservative G.O.P. of George W. Bush combined various forms of corporate welfare with expanded spending on social programs, which was obviously deeply problematic in various ways … but not as absurd and self-dealing as only doing welfare for the rich. The reform-conservative G.O.P. of my fond imaginings might combine farm-subsidy cuts with food stamp cuts but also offer, say, a commensurate increase in the earned income tax credit, which is a policy that both libertarians and liberals might criticize … but again, wouldn’t be as absurd and self-dealing as only doing welfare for the rich.
The new plan claims to cut $12.9 billion in farm subsidies but that’s against a baseline (and absurdly optimistic). What makes it particularly galling is that the bill that failed cut $1 billion more and Obama’s proposal cuts twice as much. None of the plans cut farm subsidies like they should but the Republicans have somehow managed to give us the worst of all possible worlds and end up to the left of the President.
Now is this worth it if we end up with cuts to the bloated food stamp program? Well, the problem is that we’ll almost certainly not get cuts to the food stamp program. Here’s the thing about cutting government spending: it can not be done this way. It can’t be done by exempting Republican interests from cuts while savaging Democratic interests because, as we’re seeing right now, the result is that nothing gets cut. I would bet that the result of this is either an Obama veto, a bill dying in the Senate or an eventual compromise that doesn’t cut food stamps either.
The only way to cut government spending is to gore everyone’s cow. Just trying to gore the Democrats’ cow doesn’t get us anywhere (even setting aside the morality of cutting food stamps while maintaining Agribusiness subsidies). It’s not that food stamp spending shouldn’t be cut. It’s that it’s almost impossible to cut it without cutting something Republicans want, such as … oh, I don’t know … giant bloated unnecessary payouts to rich Agribusiness.
This why the sequester, clumsy as it was, passed and has, to some extent worked. It cut everything. It gored everyone’s cow. Congress has gone back and restored some spending (oddly, enough, prioritizing programs that needed it). But the sequester cuts would never have happened if they’d just cut welfare spending while jacking up military spending.