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Published: Friday, 2/14/2014

COMMENTARY

Snub of Obama pains long-time Mich. GOP lawmaker

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
Jack Lessenberry Jack Lessenberry
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EAST LANSING, Mich. — For years, many of Detroit’s northern suburbs were represented in Congress by Bill Broomfield, a gentle, self-effacing man who rose to become ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

He was unswervingly Republican, especially on domestic issues. He voted against virtually every piece of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation.

But the thought of snubbing or being rude to any president of any party would have appalled him. He served during the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Mr. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush. Mr. Broomfield, now 92 years old and in fragile health, told me: “I can honestly say I liked working with all the presidents.”

Had he still been in Congress, he would have shown up without a second thought last week, when President Obama came to Michigan State University to sign the long-stalled farm bill.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, was given credit by both parties for her diligent bipartisan effort to break a two-year impasse on the bill, which sets a framework for U.S. farm policy for a decade.

When it finally passed, the bill got more support from House Republicans than Democrats. But not a single one of the two dozen Republicans who were invited to the signing showed up.

The President was snubbed while he signed a bill whose economic importance is vast, both for the state and the nation.

“This is a huge bill,” Senator Stabenow told me the day before she accompanied the President to the bill signing at Michigan State — which, not coincidentally, is her alma mater. “It includes 12 different titles, each of which could be a major piece of legislation in itself.”

Though the loudest criticism of the final bill came from liberals who were upset with cuts to nutrition programs, she said the hardest bargaining had to do with reconciling the different interests of different regions of the country.

The senator felt one of the bill’s greatest accomplishments was eliminating $5 billion a year in subsidies that were paid to farmers — some of whom are millionaires — whether they grew anything or not. More of those farmers were in the South than anywhere else, Ms. Stabenow said.

Instead, the government is expanding its crop insurance program; more farmers than ever before will be eligible for federal help to pay for insurance, meaning they only get paid if they take a loss. On balance, this will be a big net plus to Michigan, Ms. Stabenow said, where farms tend to be smaller on average, and more diversified.

“This bill has Michigan written on every page,” she said.

However, the bill also cuts $8 billion from the budget for SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — previously known as food stamps. Senator Stabenow said some press accounts distorted what happened.

“I drew a line in the sand and made it clear that there wouldn’t be any farm bill if it reduced or eliminated benefits for people” who were qualified to receive them, she said. “There are provisions for cuts across the board. No regular recipient is being cut at all.”

But she added: “I was willing to tackle legitimate issues of fraud and misuse.” These included an embarrassing loophole that allowed winners of large lottery sums to continue to collect food assistance.

Ending that was uncontroversial. The sticky point came over an estimated 800,000 people who were eligible for food stamps because they had a home heating credit, but didn’t pay a utility bill.

Those folks, most of whom are in New York state, will see their SNAP benefits end. Had it been solely up to her, Ms. Stabenow might well have expanded SNAP benefits, rather than tighten them.

But Republicans control the House, and they initially passed a bill that eliminated SNAP. “We’d have had no farm bill before I let that happen,” the senator said.

What did happen was a farm bill signing at a ceremony that wasn’t attended by a single GOP official.

That didn’t seem to be calculated to hurt Ms. Stabenow, who doesn’t have to run again for four years. My guess is that Republicans feared that merely seeming to be polite to the nation’s leader might provoke Tea Party primary challenges.

Ten years ago, in retirement, Mr. Broomfield told me he was horrified when then-Vice President Dick Cheney swore at a Democratic senator.

“This hurts us a lot,” he told me. “The idea that one party can do everything on these complicated issues doesn’t make sense.”

That is clearly not the way many Republicans in Congress think today.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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