Between the Lines: Farm Bill discussion brings out the worst

Blend the natural good-natured quality of living in a special place like South Dakota, with the unique experiences one has while growing up on a farm, and … sigh. Let's just say it's easy to become disappointed with what is going on in Washington, DC right now.

Some of our fellow South Dakotans rightfully deserve criticism for their disappointing behavior relating to this issue. More on that in a bit.

There's no place like a family farm to learn how, with hard work and perseverance, (and a bit of luck, such as timely rains) some wonderful things can happen.

Every spring, my dad would plant sweet corn. But not by hand. He'd use our corn planter. Meaning we'd have several long rows bursting with sweet yellow ears every summer in one of our fields.

The sweet corn yield was always way more than our family, by ourselves, could consume and preserve. The word would soon spread through my hometown, located less than two miles from our farm, that everyone was welcome to help himself or herself, to gather as many ears as they wanted while the kernels were their sweetest.

I suppose we could have tried to profit from the excess by putting up a roadside stand and selling sweet corn to drivers passing by, but frankly, we had other things to do. We had a farm to run. It was our "business" so to speak, our only source of livelihood, and when it came to business, my dad was as practical and conservative as they come.

But, having himself grown up on that very farm and having experienced its miraculous bounty year after year, my dad adopted a worldview that included a sense of sharing and being generous with one's blessings. Plus, he'd rather people get to the corn before the raccoons did.

This long journey back in time comes about as Congress, this week, demonstrates about every other human quality but the positive ones I experienced while growing up as it attempts to craft and pass a new Farm Bill.

Things are not going well for this piece of legislation right now. David Rogers of Politico reported Monday that, in the midst of the severe drought that is currently plaguing most of the nation, House Republican leaders are proposing to walk away from farm states and decades of precedent by not calling up the new five-year plan before the current law expires Sept. 30.

The bill may not be perfect to all members of the House, but Rogers reports that it promises $35 billion in 10-year savings from exactly the type of mandatory spending that Congress promised to tackle in last summer's debt accord. But rather than disrupt its political messaging, the GOP appears willing to put it all at risk by delaying action until after the November elections.

As I write this column, the House is scheduled to take up the bill once again. A point of contention that has arisen, that personally only brings up a hollow feeling of sadness when I contemplate it, is that the legislation appears to be stalled, in part, because of disagreements over, of all things, food stamps – also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

A reasonable option proposed by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and the panel's ranking member, Collin Peterson (D-MN) is not good enough for the Tea Party faction of the House. Their protests forced withdrawl of a workable solution.

The South Dakota Republican Party, in a fit of "I just can't help but join in the stupidity," issued a doozy of a press release Tuesday.

The release reads:

"South Dakota Republican Party Chairman Tim Rave released the following statement today blasting House Democrats for conspiring to block the Farm Bill because of reforms to food stamp programs that, among other things, would prevent lottery winners from receiving federal benefits. Democratic candidate Matt Varilek has said he opposes the common sense food stamp reforms included in the House bill.

"The sad truth is that House Democrats would rather protect food stamp benefits for lottery winners than pass a much-needed farm bill," said Tim Rave, chairman of the South Dakota Republican Party. "With Matt Varilek desperately trying to join these Democrats in Washington, he needs to let South Dakotans know if he supports their efforts to derail the farm bill that our state needs."

The press release gets even stranger when it includes a statement by Varilek that pretty much refutes the claims Rave is making. The SD GOP release ends with this quote:

"Though there may be little political upside in doing so, I would defend this program (SNAP) for folks who do not abuse it." ("Matt Varilek: Fighting for South Dakota Family Farms and Ranches," MattforSD.Com, Accessed  July 23, 2012)

Why Rave chose to pluck a provision from the bill about food stamps and lottery winners as a way to criticize Democrats in general and Varilek in particular is beyond comprehension.

Republicans are evidently deathly afraid that someday, a food stamp recipient may one day win the lottery (never mind the odds against that ever happening.) They fear it SO much that they'll proudly use it as an excuse to hold up legislation that contains billions of dollars worth of provisions designed to help ag producers, rural business people, and yes, those less fortunate around us. At least that's the assumption. If Rave can infer that Varilek supports lottery winners being issued food stamps, Rave must also contend that Rep. Kristi Noem will not vote for the bill if it contains this provision.

Wow.

Just how prevalent are food stamp abuse and waste? In 2010, SNAP's payment accuracy rate averaged 96.2 percent nationwide. That's an all-time high for the program and includes both under- and overpayment. The error rate drops below 3 percent for overpayment alone.

Egregious fraud happens so infrequently that stronger enforcement being proposed for SNAP isn't even expected to result in meaningful savings to taxpayers, and it wasn't scored by the Congressional Budget Office, notes Stacy Dean, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Should the Farm Bill address concerns about food stamp waste, fraud and abuse? Of course it should. Should members of Congress work in a bipartisan, cooperative fashion to come up with a reasonable means to that end? Naturally.

In other words, ignore Rave, whose idea of being helpful is to use the poor and hungry in our state and nation as scapegoats to try to score political points.

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