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A Vote for the Hungry

One of Washington’s nastiest legislative deadlocks came to an end last week when Congress voted convincingly to override a presidential veto and enact the five-year funding package known as the Farm Bill.

The bill provides some $300 billion in food stamps, nutrition programs, foreign aid and conservation programs, along with perennially controversial growers’ subsidies. The bill’s passage is a victory for compassion, for fairness and most of all for the hungry. It is a credit to the lawmakers who voted for it and the armies of farmer, consumer, environmental and religious groups, including Jewish organizations, that fought so long and hard for passage.

The June 30 vote, on the very eve of Congress’s July 4 recess, followed weeks of trench warfare between the White House and Capitol Hill. The bill was initially passed in May by veto-proof majorities, but President Bush vetoed it anyway. Republican delaying tactics and bureaucratic snafus then forced the measure into a second round of congressional approval, presidential veto and congressional override. Bush and his allies claimed, improbably, that crop subsidies amounted to a waste and a giveaway to the rich.

Leaving aside the implausibility of Bush and company objecting to gifts for the wealthy, the argument just doesn’t wash. Farm subsidies are a topic of legitimate debate, but the bill just enacted is a step toward greater fairness, not away from it. Barely 12% of the total goes for subsidies. Subsidies themselves will be subject to a lower cap on income, reducing the amount that goes to big agribusiness without throwing family farms into crisis. An equal amount will support conservation and energy programs.

The rest of the five-year budget, upwards of $200 billion, will pay for food for the hungry, in the form of expanded food stamps, nutrition programs and overseas food aid. These, we suspect, were the real targets of Bush’s opposition.

The world community is currently suffering through a severe food crisis, largely as a consequence of soaring petroleum prices that drive up the cost of fuel and fertilizer. Rising food production costs are compounded by the global financial crisis, which hurt producers and consumers alike, and severe weather that is ruining crops in places like Iowa. The result is hunger on a new and unfamiliar scale, in a wired, globalized world that is capable of better.

Withholding assistance to the poor and hungry, as this administration has sought to do repeatedly over the years, is heartless. Cutting food aid at the present moment, in the midst of a worldwide food crisis, is unconscionable. For a government that claims to be motivated by biblically based religious values, it should be unthinkable. Americans, whatever their faith or income level, owe Congress a debt of gratitude for standing firm.


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