Erika Eichelberger

Erika Eichelberger

Reporter

Erika Eichelberger is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She has also written for The NationThe Brooklyn Rail, and TomDispatch. Email her at eeichelberger [at] motherjones [dot] com. 

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Farm Bill Passes House with Zero Funding for Food Stamps

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 7:04 PM EDT

On Thursday, the House finally passed the farm bill, which provides funding for agriculture and nutrition programs—but only after Republicans stripped out all provisions concerning the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program.

The massive, five-year farm bill failed to pass the House in late June because conservative Republicans thought that the bill's envisioned cuts to the food stamp program ($21 billion over 10 years) wasn't enough, and Democrats thought it was far too much. The GOP devised a plan to pick up more votes by dividing the legislation, aiming to give the farm provisions a better chance of passage by splitting them from the controversial food stamp provisions. Meanwhile, GOP leaders hoped to garner more conservative votes for the nutrition bill by turning it into a vehicle to make further cuts to  food stamps.

So far, their plan is working. The farm bill sans food stamps passed on a party-line vote of 216 to 208, with only 12 Republicans voting against. (Next, Republicans will draft up a separate food stamp bill.)

The President of New York City's Food Bank, Margarette Purvis, slammed the split bill as an attack on the needy, saying it would leave "the fates of 47 million Americans in limbo. This is a sad statement of the priorities of the leadership of this House of Representatives," she continued. "We need Congress to pass a farm bill that reduces hunger, not one that puts billions of meals at risk for the most vulnerable among us—especially when need remains so high."

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) echoed this Thursday. "A vote for this bill is a vote to end nutrition in America," she said.

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Elizabeth Warren and John McCain Introduce Bill to Bust Up Big Banks

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 4:49 PM EDT

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill Thursday that would break up the nation's biggest banks, forcing them to split their routine commercial banking operations from their risky trading activities.

The 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which Congress passed in response to the 1929 financial crash, separated traditional commercial banks—which hold Americans' checking and savings accounts and are backed by taxpayer money—from investment banks, which make riskier bets. But in 1999, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act—which was backed by the Clinton administration—gutted this law. A bonanza of bank mergers ensued, and the size of these new behemoths, such as Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, and Bank of America, made their downfalls more threatening to the overall US economy. Their too-big-to-fail size justified the government bailouts they received during the last financial crisis. The senators behind this new bill—a group that includes John McCain (R-Ariz.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), and Angus King (I-Maine)—refer to their legislation as the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act because it would reinstate a firewall between normal banking functions and casino-like finance. By cutting the big banks down to size, the bill would reduce the potential impact of a bank failure on the wider economy and decrease the size of future bailouts.

The senators contend that even as the economy slowly improves, big banks continue their bad behavior. In December, for example, the giant international bank HSBC was fined for illegally allowing millions in Mexican drug trafficking money to be laundered through its accounts. Last year, JPMorgan Chase lost $6 billion on one bad trade. What's more, the nation's four biggest banks are now 30 percent larger than they were five years ago.

"Since core provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act were repealed in 1999, shattering the wall dividing commercial banks and investment banks, a culture of dangerous greed and excessive risk-taking has taken root in the banking world," McCain said in a statement. "Big Wall Street institutions should be free to engage in transactions with significant risk, but not with federally insured deposits."

There was pressure to resurrect Glass-Steagall after the 2008 financial crisis, but the final 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law did not include such a provision. Dodd-Frank aimed to address the too-big-to-fail problem by forcing Wall Street to limit its risk-taking. These senators maintain that's not sufficient.

"Congress must take additional steps to see that American taxpayers aren't again faced with having to bail out big Wall Street institutions while Main Street suffers," King said.

This bill, if passed and enacted into law, would not fully remove the the threat of too-big-to-fail. None of the institutions that failed in 2008, such as Lehman Brothers and American International Group, were commercial banks. "But, it would rebuild the wall between commercial and investment banking that was in place for over 60 years," McCain said, "restore confidence in the system, and reduce risk for the American taxpayer."

GOP Plan to Split Up Farm Bill Could Doom Food Stamps

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), House Agricultural Committee Chairman

Update (4:30pm 7/11/2013): On Thursday afternoon, the House approved the food stamp-less version of the farm bill.

Update (7/11/2013): Late Wednesday, top House Republicans dropped the section of the farm bill pertaining to food stamps from a new version of the legislation. The bill could come up for a vote as early as Thursday.

On June 20, the farm bill, a huge, five-year bill that provides funding for farm and nutrition programs, failed to pass the House by a vote of 234-195. That's because conservative Republicans thought that the bill's $21 billion in cuts from the food stamp program over 10 years wasn't nearly enough, and Democrats thought it was way too much. Now the GOP is proposing to try and pass the farm bill by splitting it into two separate pieces of legislation, which would allow separate votes on farm provisions and nutrition programs. The problem is that this kind of move could mean even deeper cuts to the food stamp program.

On Tuesday, Republicans discussed the strategy with House agriculture committee chair Frank Lucas (R-Okla.); the idea is that splitting the bill up would give the farm provisions a better chance of passage since they wouldn't be attached to the controversial food stamp provisions. At the same, time, the GOP would be able to garner more conservative votes for the nutrition bill by making further cuts to the food stamp program. The plan "would take the SNAP bill farther to the right and make bigger cuts," Robert Greenstein of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) told the National Journal.

But a House food stamp bill with, say, $30 billion in cuts wouldn't be the main problem. The problem is that this kind of draconian bill wouldn't pass the Senate, which passed a farm bill with a mere $4 billion in nutrition cuts. That means the food stamp program would end up hanging around unauthorized (meaning it would continue to be funded at current levels through appropriations bills). That leaves the program vulnerable to other pieces of legislation, says Dottie Rosenbaum, an expert on food assistance at CBPP. There is a "lot of mega-legislation coming up," she adds, including a debt ceiling bill in September, and it's dangerous if "cuts are on the table."

"I worry that it sets the [food stamp] program up for a ceaseless attack over time because it is unauthorized," Greenstein told the National Journal. Especially since the GOP's ultimate goal, as laid out by Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) most recent budget, is to cut food stamps by $135 billion over 10 years.

Top Dems on both the Senate and House ag committees slam the idea. Senate agriculture committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told the Associated Press that cutting the bill up would be a "major mistake." Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the top Democrat on the House ag committee, has said the idea is "stupid."

The breakup may very well not happen, because it's not only anti-hunger groups who are opposed to the splitting up of the farm bill; farm groups are, too. The Hill reported Wednesday that the proposal is currently short on votes.

Anti-hunger advocates hope that the motley coalition wins out over slash-happy conservatives, and that food stamps will be saved for the time being. After all, "there is a history of food stamps and the farm bill being together. That process has resulted in a bipartisan moderate result," Rosenbaum says.

A farm bill that remains intact would in all likelihood still mean food stamp cuts. Just not Paul Ryan-sized cuts.

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