On Wednesday morning, Republicans won a years-long battle over whether to slash or spare food stamps when the House passed the farm bill, a $500 billion piece of legislation that funds nutrition and agriculture programs for the next five years.
The farm bill has been delayed for more than two years because of a fight over cuts to the food stamp program, which is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Last June, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) forced a vote on a bill that would have cut $20 billion from SNAP. But conservatives said the cuts were not deep enough, Democrats said they were far too deep, and the bill failed, 234-195. That September, House Republicans drafted new legislation slashing $40 billion from the food stamp program. That bill passed the House with Republican votes only. After months of negotiations with the Democrat-controlled Senate, which wanted much lower cuts of around $4 billion, the House finally passed a farm bill 251-166 Wednesday that contains a "compromise" $9 billion in reductions to the food stamp program.
And yet, despite the $5 billion in cuts that already happened and the guarantee of $6 billion more, Republicans succeeded in getting their Democratic peers to cut food stamps further. This is the first time in history that a Democratic Senate has even proposed cutting the program. Now the upper chamber is expected to pass cuts twice the level it approved last year.
"It's a net loss for Democrats," Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tells Mother Jones. "It's absolutely a GOP win," agrees a House Democratic aide.
How did the GOP do it? In November, Dems said that Boehner was interfering with House-Senate negotiations on the farm bill, rejecting proposed legislation that contained shallower food stamps cuts. (Boehner's office denies this.)
But Dems deserve much of the blame, the Democratic aide says. Last year, House liberals were scheming to get progressives to vote against any farm bill that contained SNAP cuts. The idea was that if enough progressives voted no along with the House conservatives who think the cuts are too low, Democrats could defeat the bill. In that case, food stamp funding would be preserved at current levels. A "$9 billion [cut] is too much…It hits in the gut," Rep. Gwen Moore (R-Wis.) told Mother Jones earlier this month.
When the final bill came up for a vote in the House, the Congressional Progressive Caucus advised its 76 members to vote against the bill. But not enough Dems voted to block the cuts. One hundred three Democrats voted against the farm bill, but 89 voted in favor. If 43 more Democrats had voted no, the farm bill would have failed. "Dems are…complicit in changing [the] law, when they could just [block the bill] and let that status quo continue," the Democratic aide says.
Democrats in the House and Senate agreed to cut nutrition aid for poor Americans because they "have shifted to the right on SNAP politically," the staffer adds. "If Dems were as absolutist as the tea party, this bill would be dead on arrival and SNAP would continue as is."
But the assault on the food stamp program "could have been much, much worse," argues Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. Stacy Dean, the vice president for food assistance policy at the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), agrees. Democrats succeeded in stripping many draconian GOP provisions from the bill. Republicans wanted to impose new work requirements on food stamp recipients; allow states to require drug testing for food stamps beneficiaries; ban ex-felons from ever receiving nutrition aid; and award states financial incentives to kick people off the program. None of those measures were in the final legislation, Dean notes.
The cuts to the food stamp program come from closing a loophole that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed needed to be addressed. A household's level of monthly food stamps benefits is determined by how much disposable income a family has after rent, utilities, and other expenses are deducted. Some states allow beneficiaries to deduct a standard utility charge from their income if they qualify for a federal heating aid program called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, even if they only receive a few dollars per year in heating aid. The arrangement results in about 850,000 households getting a utility deduction that is much larger than their actual utility bill. Because the deduction makes these families' disposable income appear to be lower than it actually is, they get more food stamp money each month. The farm bill that passed the House on Wednesday saves $9 billion by closing that loophole.
The savings from closing the heating aid loophole could have been returned to the food stamp program. Instead, Republicans succeeded in prodding Dems to accept $9 billion in new cuts on top of the $11 billion in expiring stimulus funds. That extra $9 billion in cuts means that close to a million households will see their benefits slashed by about $90 a month—enough to pay for a week's worth of cheap groceries for a family of four.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)—a group of African-American lawmakers in the House that defends the interests of minorities and people with low incomes—are planning to publicly chastise President Barack Obama this week over two of his judicial nominees who have backed racially offensive and discriminatory policies, and what they see as a lack of diversity amongst his judicial picks, The Hill reported Sunday.
And some of Obama's nominees have "views… that reflect the regressive policies of the past," Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) pointed out in a letter to Senate judiciary chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) earlier this month. Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs, who Obama nominated to the US district court for the Northern district of Georgia in December, voted to keep the Confederate battle emblem as a central part of Georgia's state flag when he was a Georgia legislator in the early 2000s. Atlanta attorney Mark Howard Cohen, who Obama nominated to the same court last month, helped defend Georgia's voter ID law, which voting rights advocates say makes it harder for poor people and minorities to vote.
CBC lawmakers and civil rights leaders have been pressuring Obama for months to rethink these nominations, but to no avail. So CBC members are trying another tack. They will hold a press conference this week to bring attention to the issue, and they're mulling an opposition strategy to block the nominees.
"We have very grave concerns [with certain nominees] given disparities that are particularly common in the South," Norton told The Hill. As my colleague Nick Baumann reported last summer, research has shown that the South remains more racist than the North.
So why did the president pick these nominees, especially now that Republicans can no longer filibuster judicial nominees? It has to do with a procedural hurdle called the blue-slip process that functions as a de facto filibuster. Here's how the process works: When the president is floating a potential judicial nomination, the senators from the state where the judge would serve are given a blue slip of paper. If both senators do not return their blue slips, the nominee will not be able to move forward to a vote in the Senate judiciary committee. This allows the GOP to exert significant control over nominees. Georgia's Republican Sens. John Isakson and Saxby Chambliss have used the blue-slip process to delay some of Obama's nominees to their state's northern district court for years. To fill those spots, Obama worked out a deal with the GOP senators that resulted in the nominations of Boggs and Cohen.
In an interview with MSNBC's Adam Serwer earlier this month, a White House official said Obama was not to blame for these nominations, as Republican senators are taking advantage of the blue-slip process. The White House has also pointed out that eighteen percent of confirmed judges under Obama have been black. That number was eight percent under President George W. Bush.
CBC lawmakers are not impressed. As Scott told The Hill: “Do you think a white president, a George W. Bush, a Republican president—any white president—would appoint these kinds of nominees with the confederate flag background? With the voter suppression background? That White House would have been maimed by people crying out."
Police report alleging domestic assault filed by Erick Bennett's ex-wife.
Political consultant Erick Bennett, who is challenging moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins in Maine's GOP primary, was convicted in 2004 of assaulting his wife. When his criminal past resurfaced, he crafted an unusual response: He said that his fight to against his conviction showed that he was a man of determination and principle. "The fact that I have been jailed repeatedly for not agreeing to admit to something I didn't do should speak to the fact of how much guts and integrity I have," he told the Bangor Daily News in December. Though the assault conviction has received media coverage, the full details of the case have not drawn much attention. Police records and court documents obtained by Mother Jones describe the incident, and suggest that Bennett may have trouble escaping his past.
In early 2004, Erick, his then-wife Angela, their two-year-old twins, and Angela's eight-year-old son from another relationship were living in a motel room in Bangor, because a recent fire had damaged their apartment. Here is Angela's description of what happened on January 16, according to the report she filed with the Bangor police. (The department redacted some names for privacy reasons.):
On Friday night, January 16, 2004, in the evening, my husband Erick Matthew Bennett assaulted me repeatedly while we were at the [REDACTED]. He did this in front of our [REDACTED]. [REDACTED] witnessed the entire assaults. First, Erick's friend [REDACTED] had called to invite Erick and [REDACTED] to watch football the Sunday coming. I asked why [REDACTED] never invited all of us, since [REDACTED] was also married and I got along with [REDACTED]. He stated, "Because [REDACTED] doesn't like you." I asked why. And he said "because he thinks you're irrational." I said he shouldn't say those things in front of [REDACTED] and I also said that [REDACTED] hardly knows me and I don't want [REDACTED] around someone who says he doesn't like me. Erick got off the bed, put both hands around my neck, squeezed my neck and said "Leave me alone." A little later we were laying on separate beds. He was reading a Flex magazine. I said I would like to have the check my [REDACTED] sent (to help us because of our house fire 1/9) so I could start a savings account for us in the morning. I was feeling extremely nervous because he had squeezed my neck a little earlier. He got up as if to go to his coat to get the check but instead turned around toward the bed and I just knew we was gonna come after me so I got up to head for the bathroom saying, "Please Erick I'm sorry" but he grabbed me and got me on the floor and pressed me down. Then he started saying "What are you doing? Sit still? Why are you doing this?" As if I was fighting back and he needed to defend himself. At times when I could turn my head I could see him looking over at [REDACTED] to see if he was watching. The [REDACTED] were really upset [ILLEGIBLE] the ground. He pushed my head into the floor and held it there. Finally somehow he stopped and said, "Sit on the bed, I just want to talk to you." Then he poked me in the head and said in a mean tone "Why do you do this?" I didn't answer. He clapped both his hands over my ears. I knew I couldn't argue with him or he would hurt me worse. This isn't the 1st time he has hurt me. He tries to find excuses to hurt me. Fighting back makes him say I am the crazy one and he has to defend himself. So I didn't argue or fight back at all. At one point our [REDACTED] came close and held [REDACTED] on the bed but Erick wouldn't stop. He hit me in the head again and again blaming me for everything. He smacked me upside the head and I was terrified. I even ran out of the room into the cold with the [REDACTED] but it was 30 below that night and the office was over across the way and I was so terrified I went back in. He then said "See [REDACTED] so crazy." Yet he was so calm. I could see he was in control of everything. He knew what he was doing and then telling the [REDACTED] I need meds. I stayed another week. He acted as if nothing happened. The day after I said "I am so sore." His response was "Are you getting the flu?" (!) I left when he told me Friday 1/23/04 that he would "kill me" if I kept "running my mouth." "I will kill you—I hate your f____n guts." I am too terrified to even set foot in [REDACTED].
A little over a week after the incident, Angela took the couple's children and drove to her parents' house. She reported the alleged assault to the Bangor police in early February of that year. "I finally feel strong enough to press charges against him," Angela wrote in the police report. The couple went to court in early May. After a one day trial, a judge found Erick guilty of assaulting Angela and sentenced him to 60 days in prison. The judge then waived the sentence, and ordered a year's probation and the completion of a batterer's intervention program.
Erick told the court he never hurt Angela. According to court records, "Erick testified that…Angela wearing high heels, tripped over her own legs and that Erick attempted to catch her, but failed, and they fell to the floor." He told Mother Jones, "She came at me and started hitting me in the chest. I put my hands up and stopped her, and she fell…I tried to not land on her hard, and I didn't. I did lay there a second because she was freaking out." As for the charge that he threatened to kill her, Erick insists, "I don't know what you're talking about."
Erick appealed the ruling, arguing that the court had not allowed his lawyer to question Angela thoroughly as to why she had taken a week to leave Erick and about three weeks to report the incident to the police. Erick's lawyer contended this additional interrogation would have shown than Angela was lying about the assault. The state Supreme Court shot down the appeal later that year.
Angela and Erick divorced in 2005. She could not be reached for comment on this story.
Bennett claims that one reason he's running for office is to try to change domestic-violence laws that he contends enable fraud. "Anything can be considered domestic assault in Maine," he says. Bennett adds: "All I would have to do is go to the police station and write down something. Then, once I get on the stand, I just need to recite that…And that is enough to get you convicted of domestic assault…I never saw it coming."
Christopher Almy, the district attorney for Penobscot County, where Bennett's trial was conducted, counters that obtaining a domestic-assault conviction in Maine "is not that simplistic. It's like any case: If there's going to be a conviction, you have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, you have to have witnesses provide credible evidence. The judge would have to believe what the witnesses have to say… It's about the same anywhere in the country."
"We have excellent judges here," says Jim Aucoin, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case against Erick. "If they found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, I'm sure it happened."
The chair of the Maine Republican Party, Rick Bennett (no relation), has denounced Erick Bennett's candidacy. "The Maine Republican Party stands firmly with Gov. [Paul] LePage, a leader in the battle against domestic violence, and the hundreds of Maine lawmakers who have put partisanship aside on this important issue," he says. "The Maine Republican Party expects its candidates to uphold the law and promote the sanctity and security of family life. Domestic violence is a gravely serious issue, and actions speak louder than words."
Bennett, who mounted a failed campaign in 2011 for mayor of Portland, says he won't be hindered by his criminal record. "Once [voters] look past…the domestic-assault conviction," he insists, they'll appreciate what he stands for. If elected, he says, he will not "pass…laws that take away our rights."
The health insurance exchanges set up under Obamacare are required by federal law to help millions of uninsured Americans register to vote. But the Obama administration is refusing to fully comply with that law, according to two voting rights organizations.
Here's what the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has to do with voting: The 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), known as the Motor Voter law, requires departments of motor vehicles and other agencies that provide public assistance to offer voter registration services. The new health care exchanges fall under this requirement, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The federally run exchange (which was set up to provide a health insurance portal for residents in states where Republican governors refused to establish their own insurance marketplaces) and several state-run exchanges provide a link to the federal voter registration website in their health insurance applications. But the Motor Voter law requires that covered agencies do more than this, and in the case of Obamacare, that means the navigators hired by HHS who walk uninsured Americans through the sign-up process must also offer to guide applicants through the voter registration process. Yet in a letter sent to the White House on Thursday, voting rights groups Demos and Project Vote charge that HHS is not complying with this aspect of the law.
"This looks like [the administration is] running from a political fight," says Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Health Care Reform and American Politics.
Last week, 100 House Dems asked House Speaker John Boehner to cancel this week's legislative recess and keep the House in session to hash out legislation that would renew expired unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. Instead, Boehner traveled to unemployment-plagued Nevada for a fundraiser.
The state's Democratic lawmakers were quick to pile on. "Speaker Boehner skipped town to fundraise in Nevada instead of scheduling a vote to extend unemployment insurance benefits that thousands of Nevadans rely on," says Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.). As long as Boehner was in town, Horsford says, he should have "take[n] the time to explain to unemployed Nevadans why he continues to ignore them."
"Once again, Speaker Boehner has chosen politics over the people," adds Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.). He "would do well to take time from his fundraising schedule to meet with families in District One and hear their struggles to put food on the table, pay their mortgage, and put gas in the car."
Boehner attended a Las Vegas Country Club luncheon last Friday to help raise cash for the re-election of Nevada GOP Rep. Joe Heck. The cost was $2,600 a head for a roundtable plus lunch—$1,000 for lunch only.