10:31 a.m. June 28, 2013

Small Government, Huge Hypocrite

"The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity is to take care of each other, but not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.”

These are the words of tea party Congressman Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump, Tennessee, spoken from a pulpit in a Holiday Inn conference room this past May. Two days earlier, Mr. Fincher had argued passionately on the floor of the House of Representatives in favor of tacking on a provision onto the 2013 Farm Bill that would gut the federal food stamp program by over $20 billion and push an estimated two million people—mostly retirees and poor families with kids—further into poverty and hunger.

The reason? Rep. Fincher is a Crusader for small government. He believes that state welfare programs designed to keep poor children from starving are tantamount to theft, and go against the very teachings of the Son of God himself: "One unwilling to work will not eat,” said Fincher, quoting the bible on the floor of the House, and then reminded his colleagues of their fiduciary responsibility to U.S. taxpayers: "This is other people’s money that Washington is appropriating and spending.”

Well, turns out that it’s not the "appropriating” of other people's money that bothers Fincher, it’s the spending won’t be funneled to the right people. People like Mr. Fincher and his political backers.

You see, Fincher might be an anti-welfare insurrectionist, but he’s also one of the biggest welfare queens in his home state of Tennessee.

According to federal subsidy data compiled by the Environmental Working Group, Stephen Fincher has personally cashed in on $3.5 million in federal farm welfare payments (aka agricultural subsidies) since 1999. Fincher’s average welfare payout comes out to $300,000 annually—200 times bigger than the $1,586.40 an average family in Tennessee receives in food stamp benefits a year. But wait, there’s more…

Stephen Fincher’s whole family’s been been raking in the welfare: Stephen’s father, Jackie Fincher, cashed $4.2 million worth of farm welfare checks since 1995. Stephen’s 16-year-old son, John Austin, has been also learning to coast through life with help of welfare training wheels: he’s cashed in on roughly $3 million.

All in all, the Finchers have had a good haul, taking in at least $10 million in farm welfare since the mid-'90s.

Fincher’s gutsy hypocrisy made a brief news splash. The New York Times covered it, so did Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. Even MSNBC’s Lawrence O'Donnell chimed in with an on-air editorial attacking Fincher and banishing him to "a special place in the congressional hall of shame” for trying to "take food out of the mouths of children as long as he can still use government money to enrich himself.”

O'Donnell acted like Fincher was some kind of special case hypocrite. But really he's just the freshest face in a long, illustrious line of closetcase welfare-o-phobes on Capitol Hill, lawmakers who fight welfare by day and then go home to cash their farm subsidy checks.

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I have some experience in this department. Back in 2009, I caused a minor political shit-storm by breaking the news that Michele Bachmann, queen of the tea baggers, was moonlighting as a different kind of queen: a welfare queen, who took in more than a quarter-million dollars in big government handouts on the sly via her Wisconsin family cotton and dairy farm.

Here’s what I wrote back then:

…data compiled from federal records by Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog that tracks the recipients of agricultural subsidies in the United States, shows that Bachmann has an inner Marxist that is perfectly at ease with living on the government dole. According to the organization’s records, Bachmann’s family farm received $251,973 in federal subsidies between 1995 and 2006. The farm had been managed by Bachmann’s recently deceased father-in-law and took in roughly $20,000 in 2006 and $28,000 in 2005, with the bulk of the subsidies going to dairy and corn.

…Bachmann’s financial disclosure forms indicate that her personal stake in the family farm is worth up to $250,000. They also show that she has been earning income from the farm business, and that the income grew in just a few years from $2,000 to as much as $50,000 for 2008. This has provided her with a second government-subsidized income to go with her job as a government-paid congresswoman who makes $174,000 per year (in addition to having top-notch government medical benefits).

My scoop went viral, and was picked up nearly every major news outlet. It was a major embarrassment for Bachmann, showing the rank and file teabagger activists that the self-proclaimed leader of the Tea Party movement, who had vowed to stop President Obama's commie shock-troops from "reaching down the throat and ripping the guts out of freedom” was just another corrupt Bush Republican, paying lip service to conservative ideals while stuffing her pockets with taxpayer money.

Bachmann won't be seeking reelection in 2014. But don’t worry, she’ll be leaving D.C. in good hands of experienced closetcase welfare-o-phobes just like herself.

The Environmental Working Group recently crunched the numbers and determined that at least 15 current members of Congress are on the farm welfare rolls. Most of them are, of course, staunchly anti-welfare. (And this number is almost certainly higher, as farms are frequently split up and registered under different family members to escape scrutiny. )

Among this year's top welfare farmers are Chuck Grassley, the dinosaur GOP Senator from Iowa. Grassley and his two sons raked in just under $29,000 in 2012, bringing the family’s total welfare haul to $1 million over the past 16 years. And this is from a guy who believes that "[w]henever the government does more… that’s a movement toward socialism.”

Then there's GOP Rep. Doug LaMalfa, fourth generation trustfund farmer from California. His family farm took in $5.1 million in farm welfare payments since 1995, mostly for growing rice. Rep LaMalfa, who struts around in cowboy hats pretending he’s a lowly subsistence farmer, sits on the House ag committee along with Rep. Fincher. And like Fincher, LaMalfa supported expanding farm subsidy payments, while gutting food stamps. No surprise there. For the record, he’s also against gay marriage…

Then there's former Kansas Senator Sam Brownback. While he recently ditched D.C. to serve as the Koch brothers’ handpicked governor of Kansas, Mr. Brownback comes from a long family tradition of welfare farming. Over the years, he and his kin have milked the federal government for hundreds of thousands of dollars -- at least $500,000 at last count. Meanwhile, when in the Senate, Brownback advocated for a strict two-year limit on all welfare benefits and even held a joint "prayercast” with Michele Bachmann to try and stop the commie devil from possessing America’s private healthcare system. Now’s he’s carrying out a hardline free-market perestroika in his home state of Kansas. Among his objectives: to gut social spending, privatize public education, bust unions…

Conservative rural Democrats are also getting in on the farm welfare action, all while fighting against socialized medicine and pushing for austerity. Chief among them is Max Baucus, Senator from Montana, who collected $250,000 in taxpayer subsidies. Same goes for Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, whose family cashed $715,000 in farm welfare since 1995…The list goes on and on and on and on…

As corrupt and disgusting as these politicians are, the bigger issue here are the federal farm subsidies themselves, a confusing and sprawling program that funnels $20 billion every year to the richest Americans.

Federal farm subsidy programs were initially created during the New Deal to help struggling farmers survive the Great Depression, but over time the program has been deregulated and corrupted into a giant scam that funnels taxpayer money to the huge agribusinesses and absentee farmers who work their land from their Beverly Hills mansions and Park Avenue penthouses.

Consider this: Over the past 17 years, U.S. taxpayers ponied up hundreds of billions of dollars to pay for agricultural subsidies—77% of that wound up in the hands of the top 10% richest farmers. It's welfare in reverse: taking from the many and giving it to the wealthy few. And the richer you are, the bigger handout you get.

There are few restrictions and those that do exist are rarely enforced, meaning that billions go to dead farmers, fake farmers, McRanch owners… you name it. Hell, even fourth-generation robber baron Mark F. Rockefeller is on the farm welfare dole. He doesn’t farm, and that’s exactly why he’s been getting $54,500 a year since 2001 on a chunk of land in Idaho… You can get money not to farm, even if you never intended to work the land in the first place. Welfare for the rich is welfare service with a smile…

If you want to get your blood pressure up, you can check out this article I published in the New York Press about wealthy Manhattanites cashing huge farm welfare checks year after year.

Not surprisingly, farm subsidy programs keep getting bigger and more corrupt and more unaccountable, year after year. Meanwhile, safety net programs, education funds, social services and anything that helps the vast majority of people are constantly being cut and gutted.

This was put on display during recent Farm Bill discussions in both the Senate and the House. Congress has to approve the Farm Bill every five years. It’s a massive piece of legislation that controls almost every aspect of federal agricultural and food policy, including food stamps.

In the House, Fincher and his colleagues on the Agriculture Committee cobbled together a farm bill that would have expanded a controversial farm welfare program that incentivizes farmers to plant crops in areas subject to flooding, extreme drought or other natural calamities by bailing out farmers in the even their crops are destroyed. It’s a win-win for welfare farmers, but a loss to taxpayers, who’d have to shell out $9 billion for the program.

To pay for farm welfare expansion, the House farm bill would gut food stamps by $20.5 billion and create a covert program that incentivizes individual states to kick as many people off food stamps as possible. The scheme was simple: a state will get back 50 cents of every dollar it saves the feds by purging the program. Stacy Dean, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, was shocked and disgusted by the provision, which she described as "a kickback" to states given "for refusing to serve unemployed mothers with young children."

The House farm bill failed when it came up for a vote on June 20th, and liberal commentators were quick to pounce on it as a sign of just how sadistic and cruel the GOP has become. WaPo's squishy Brookings Institute op-ed writer E.J. Dionne chastised the Republican Party in the strongest language he could muster: "There is something profoundly wrong when a [GOP] legislative majority is so eager to risk leaving so many Americans hungry. That’s what the bill would have done, and why defeating it was a moral imperative."

Yeah, about this moral imperative… The the Democrat-controlled Senate seemed just as eager to gut food stamps in their own version of the Farm Bill, which was only marginally less harsh than what the baggers of the House put together.

The Senate Farm Bill, which passed on June 10 with bipartisan support, expanded the controversial bailout insurance payments and boosted other types of subsidies as well. The bill comes with a $955 billion price tag. But even with all that money, senators voted to cut food stamps by $4.1 billion, a cruel and criminal move that restricts access to food for families and children at time when food stamp use has doubled as a result of the severe depression.

Welfare for the rich is the only kind of welfare our political culture can tolerate.