When we consider all that is at stake in the ongoing struggle between progressive and reactionary forces on the issue of food stamps, the faces of hungry American children should be the picture in the forefront of our minds and hearts.
We all should be following the lead of national leaders like my Massachusetts colleague and friend, Congressman Jim McGovern, and “end hunger in America now.”
As Congressman McGovern has often pointed out on the floor of the House, there are 50 million Americans, 17 million of whom are children, who would go to bed hungry tonight without a little help from their countrymen and women. Most of these vulnerable Americans are children, the elderly and the disabled.
Even those who deride food stamps (now called the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP) will acknowledge that providing healthy food to struggling families is a core pillar supporting our American value that none of us should go hungry.
Yet, at the same time that they applaud this national priority, they are seeking to deny nutritional food to families whom they must know are but a few dollars away from going to bed hungry.
Since the 1970s, our national agricultural and food security policies have been supported by a bipartisan coalition consisting of rural and more urbanized representatives.
That is not what happened last month when the House Republican leadership failed in its first attempt to reauthorize this nation’s primary agriculture and nutrition policy, the Federal Agricultural Reform and Risk Management (“FARRM”) Act, H.R. 1947.
On the surface, it may have appeared that progressive Democrats and the Tea Party Republican Caucus had achieved common ground, both of us voting in large numbers to defeat H.R. 1947.
In fact, while my progressive colleagues and I were voting against an attempt by the Republican leadership to slash nutrition aid to struggling families, Tea Party Republicans wanted to cut food stamp funding even more drastically than the Republican Leadership had proposed.
Traditionally, more than 80 percent of farm bill funding has supported our national struggle against hunger. As proposed, however, H.R. 1947 would have cut $20 billion in SNAP funding, ending nutrition funding for nearly 2 million Americans. More than 210,000 needy children would have been deprived of the subsistence they now receive from free school breakfasts and lunches.
Most of the vulnerable Americans attacked by the Republican caucus last month are working families with children or are senior citizens. That was why I voted against H.R. 1947 last month - and why President Obama threatened to veto the measure, were it to pass.
Then, last week, having failed to pass their version of the FARRM bill, the House Republican leadership bowed to the ideological radicalism of their Tea Party faction and forced through an agricultural support bill [H.R. 2642] stripped of any continued authorization for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Bowing to the obstinacy of their Tea Party wing, they did so in the face of unanimous opposition from House Democrats, food security advocates and more than 500 pro-agriculture groups.
Attempting to explain why the Republican leadership decided to drop the food stamp program from the farm bill, Congressman Pete Sessions of Texas remarked that “what we have carefully done is exclude some extraneous pieces” from the farm legislation.
Most Americans would ask: How can tens of millions of Americans, nearly one-half of them children, going to bed hungry be “extraneous?”
“The 47 million people who are on SNAP are not extraneous,” Congressman McGovern responded. “They are important. They are part of our community,” and, along with most Americans who have any shred of conscience, I wholeheartedly agree.
Without doubt, as the Republicans assert, the impact of the Bush recession and our painfully slow recovery has dramatically expanded the cost of federal nutrition assistance. Yet, that is a short-term cost that will moderate as the economy recovers, a cost that we must be prepared to pay.
In March of this year, for example, 767,000 Marylanders qualified for food stamps. Nationally, as Congressman McGovern noted, more than 47 million Americans are at least partially reliant upon this assistance to survive.
The Republicans’ party-line vote last week deeply injured the decades’ long coalition that has both reduced hunger in America and moderated the risks faced by agriculture. Their continued reactionary position could deal both national policies a mortal blow.
Any nation that fails to assure that all of her children, disabled and senior citizens receive the basic necessities of life cannot claim to be a humane and civilized society. In the Senate, the House and the White House, we Democrats will not throw tens of millions of struggling Americans under the bus.
As a nation, our choice is clear.
If America’s children, elderly and disabled do not receive the help that they need to survive, neither will America’s agricultural interests. If we do not continue to fight hunger in a united, bi-partisan way, all Americans will suffer as a result.
Rep. Elijah Cummings represents Maryland's Seventh Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.