Government by assholes

On the enduring effort to kick poor people in the teeth

“This is a defining moral issue of our time,” U.S. Rep Steve Southerland, R-Tallahassee, told the Washington Post in a mostly fawning profile published last week. Southerland was talking about food stamps, which he hates because he thinks they make people dependent leeches. He believes that God wants us to work, that “work is the greatest gift you will ever receive,” as he lectured one former food-stamp recipient. His aides call this the “Gospel of Work.” And so on Sept. 19 he pushed House Republicans to vote to reduce or eliminate benefits for 3.8 million food-stamp recipients, mostly seniors and children.

He’s right about this being a moral issue. Of course he’s on the completely wrong side of it. Steve Southerland, you see, is an asshole – the special kind of asshole who inherits his grandfather’s funeral business and then pats himself on the back for his pluck. There are more than a few Steve Southerlands in Congress these days.

Southerland’s draconian food-stamps bill – which passed with ayes from every Florida Republican, including the Bible-thumping Dan Webster (because What Would Jesus Do if not snatch food from the mouths of the needy?) – gives states cash incentives for booting the unemployed from their programs, even if no jobs are available, and guts help for the working poor. It is callousness personified, couched in the “tough love” rhetoric of the privileged and entitled.

It’s true that participation in the food stamps program – formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – has spiked in recent years. As of June there were more than 47 million SNAP participants in the U.S. – up from 17.3 million in 2001 – including nearly 3.6 million in Florida. But that’s a feature, not a bug. SNAP is designed to be what economists call countercyclical, meaning the program swells when the job market tanks and people have trouble making ends meet, then shrinks when things get better. And that’s precisely what’s happened since the crash of 2008. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, as the recovery stammers along, by 2019 SNAP participation will be back to normal.

But Southerland and his ilk don’t give a damn about the data. They see a program overrun by the “takers” Mitt Romney warned us about last year. Never mind that unemployment is stubbornly high, particularly among those with low education levels. Never mind that this same House of Representatives has sat on jobs bill after jobs bill, recoiling at any remedy for this morass that doesn’t begin and end with “more tax cuts.” Never mind that social mobility has actually deteriorated in the U.S. along with the seemingly intractable decline of the middle class. Never mind the empirical realities: This is a chance to kick the poor in the teeth, and they don’t pass those up.

The good news is most of those cuts are DOA in the Senate. The bad news is the assholes are just getting started. Last week we saw Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., take to the Senate floor for 21 hours (with assists from lackeys Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio), demanding that Republicans shut down the federal government unless Democrats agree to defund the Affordable Care Act and comparing the provision of affordable insurance to Nazi Germany. As of publication, the threat of a shutdown is still very real, but House Republicans already have a backup plan. They’ll default on America’s debt and crash the world economy unless President Obama caves to their ransom demands: Scrap health care reform. Enact Paul Ryan’s tax plan. Approve the Keystone Pipeline. Eliminate pollution and carbon regulations. Slash Medicare. Maybe – what the hell – ban late-term abortion. Do it or else.

This is government by extortion. More to the point, it’s another sign of government by assholes, those with a proud admixture of ignorance and indifference and arrogance. If we’re lucky, this fire will soon burn itself out, collapsing under the weight of its own venality. If we’re not, it may well be our ruin.

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