We have reached the “will-they-won’t-they” stage in Capitol watch.
Christmas is beckoning, the year is ticking down to a close, the weather is getting vicious, and on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are itching to be home and away from the unfriendly confines (if we take their word for it) of Washington.
Unfortunately, between them and home lies unfinished business, some of which has serious consequences for millions of their compatriots. There are deals to be struck and compromises to be made on bills that have consumed much time and passion during the course of the year.
Congressional leaders bristle at the charge that they preside over the least-achieving Congress in a half-century or more. But with time running out on 2013, it is only fair to ask whether we have been treated to nothing but sound and fury. Will they or won’t they offer something of substance to show for the energy expended on matters of importance — such as a budget? Or immigration?
Or a farm bill, of which the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a critical part?
For much of the year, the food-assistance program has been at the center of the tussle in both the House and Senate efforts to reauthorize the farm bill for five years. The gulf couldn’t have been wider when the two chambers eventually passed their separate bills. The Senate, which was first out of the gate in June, proposed among other steps to cut the roughly $80 billion-a-year nutrition program by $400 million a year for 10 years.
Consider that poverty and hunger have deepened in the country in the past six years, and the $4 billion proposed cut was downright outrageous. But then the House went the Senate a few rungs higher when it weighed in in September with a SNAP bill stripped from the main farm bill and scaled down by nearly $40 billion over the 10 years.
A conference committee appointed in October to find common ground between the House and Senate proposals reported last week it was making progress. The pace would be fine if the committee had all the time in the world to close the $36 billion gap and negotiate other contentious issues such as work requirements and restrictions on automatic eligibility for people who qualify for other federal assistance programs.
But who is measuring progress to a compromise on food assistance? John Boehner, for one, doesn’t seem to think there has been much progress to crow about on the farm bill, a budget deal and other issues. The House speaker, also speaking last week, said he has not seen any real progress that would warrant the House sticking around Washington: “I’ve made it clear that the House is going to leave next Friday [the 13th]. And you all know me pretty well: I mean what I say, and I say what I mean.”
And thus the speaker has spoken. Whatever is not accomplished by Friday will remain undone until Congress reconvenes after the Christmas and New Year’s recess. A deadline is a deadline, indeed. Besides, there is a possibility that the deadline, a firm line on the calendar, is the speaker’s way of applying pressure to the conference team to get on with it.
We have spent a year haggling over how much assistance this country can afford to provide American households that do not know whether they will have enough to eat from the beginning to the end of any one year. If, in the few days left on the legislative calender, the conference committee cannot find common ground on financing nutritional support for all those who need it when they need it, all the talk about building healthy families would amount to so much empty rhetoric.
It has been pointed out that one result of the failure to enact a new farm bill by year’s end would be that come January, most of the nation’s farm programs would be governed by “permanent law” enacted in 1938 and 1949. Farm experts say that turn of events would cause the price of milk, for instance, to climb to $7 or $8 a gallon.
Census data this fall showed poverty levels remain at record highs last year. About 11 million American workers earned annual incomes below the federal poverty level, and more households reported an inability to meet their food needs for some portion of the year. SNAP benefits now average about $1.40 per meal after a temporary benefit increase from stimulus funds expired last month. Congress begrudges a hungry American that much?
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at email@example.com.