The unifying lustre of U.S. Independence Day celebrations was short lived this year. After a long weekend of flag flying, naturalization ceremonies, patriotic parades, home-grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, and fantastical firework shows, it was quickly back to the new normal of short-term thinking, special-interest legislating, and deadlock politics in the Nation’s Capital. And yet, after a fortnight of brutal political mudwrestling, there are now faint glimmers this week of a possible new modus operandi, at least in the U.S. Senate.
The most flagrant down grade was reserved for the meekest in U.S. society—those dependent on food stamps to feed themselves and their families. One in five Americans relies, in some way, on government food aid, such as food stamps or free or reduced school lunches; half of those who receive food aid are young people. These figures are stark reminders of how precarious life is for many in this wealthy but socially very unequal country.
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a farm bill that provides substantial subsidies to agribusiness. To placate conservatives, the bill was stripped of its customary simultaneous provision of billions of dollars to the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Republicans say that food stamp funding will be taken up later, in subsequent legislation. But the fact remains that conservatives are fixated on addressing the spike in the size in the food stamp program. Reflecting the devastating impact of the 2008 recession, the percentage of the population using food stamps has apparently risen from 8.7 in 2007 to 15.2 in the most current data. Conservatives want to reduce this heightened dependence on government; they feel that private, perhaps church-based, organisations should rather be meeting such needs.
The food stamp exclusion came on the heels of Congressional Republicans choosing not to extend government-subsidized interest rates on student loans, thereby letting rates double. Their preference is instead for rates to reflect the market. While bipartisan efforts to produce a way forward are underway in the Senate, the uncertainty has been most debilitating for those loan-dependent students trying to plan for the imminent academic year.
The prospects for long-needed immigration reform also nosedived after Independence Day. House Speaker John Boehner said he wouldn’t place a Senate-passed bill on comprehensive immigration reform before the U.S. House of Representatives as it lacked support from a majority of Republican House members. Instead, House Republicans expect to address immigration reform in a piecemeal fashion. They plan to pass aspects of the Senate bill they endorse—such as strengthening border security, permitting more visas for high-skill immigrants, and possibly providing a solution for “Dreamers”, young people brought to the United States illegally as children who now identify exclusively as Americans. And they will likely ignore the part of the Senate bill that is anathema to them but nonnegotiable for Democrats—the “path to citizenship”, whereby 11 million illegal residents can qualify in a long, expensive, and time-consuming process to become full-fledged American citizens. Addressing immigration reform in this bite-sized way will, in all likelihood, kill the initiative for yet another cycle. And some say that is conservatives’ real goal: to deny President Obama legislative success in yet another arena that has defied reform despite successive attempts over the last decades.
The noted Congressional actions reveal a conservative strategy that is narrow, cynical, and ideological. In their purist zeal to limit the size of government, lower taxes for Americans, and reduce the budget deficit, House Republicans are hurting those in U.S. society who most depend on government. It is hard too to avoid noticing that the groups being treated so dismissively by these recent actions formed the core of the national majority that elected and then reelected Barack Obama as president: Latinos, African-Americans, young people, and (unmarried) women.
Given the reality of demographic trends, it is especially surprising that House Republicans are willing to follow a politically ruinous strategy by not addressing their “Hispanic vote problem” through all-encompassing immigration reform. Their argument that they need to ensure better turnout of their key constituency—the white working class—while also trying to attract those more inclined to vote Democratic is short sighted. This will resign the Republican Party to having voting strength in particular states, counties, and cities, but being unable to compete for national tickets. Losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections has apparently not yet hammered home the message. The recent narrowly focused actions of House Republicans will only further marginalize their party.
The disconnection between more moderate leaders of the Republican Party and zealous U.S. House of Representatives’ members should be noted. Mainstream Republicans, like many in the business community, endorse immigration reform, including the “path to citizenship”. Even former President George W. Bush came out forcefully in public recently in support of comprehensive immigration reform.
The most encouraging news of the week was the breakthrough deal in the U.S. Senate whereby seven of President Obama’s long-delayed nominations to senior positions in the executive branch will be confirmed, although two nominees will have to be fresh choices. This positive development resulted from a strategy of brinkmanship by both Senate Democrats and Republicans over the filibuster, a much-treasured tool for the minority party in the Senate. May this sorely needed compromise portend a new style in all things congressional—or at least senatorial.
In addition to starting to confirm more agreed-upon candidates for executive office, today a bipartisan group of senators also concurred on a way forward on government-subsidized student loans. Although today’s Senate proposal will have to be reconciled with the House version, agreement now appears likely on rates marginally higher than previously but lower than the market rate. This agreement will hopefully be reached before students will need to lock in loan rates for the new academic year.
Despite 237 years of independence and freedom, American democracy is still a work in progress.