WASHINGTON – I took a few days off over the Memorial Day weekend for my wedding and tried not to worry about the grim headlines, most of them generated by one man:
– President Donald Trump, shoving a European prime minister.
– Trump, picking fights with Germany and France and destabilizing the seven-decade-old NATO alliance.
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–Trump, tweeting late-night gibberish – “covfefe” – as investigators probing the Russia scandal queried more members of his inner circle.
Perhaps the most upsetting headline I saw, though, was generated not by Trump but by a 10-year veteran of the House Republican majority. In an astonishing interview Saturday on NPR, this lawmaker repeatedly demurred when asked whether Americans are entitled to the most basic human need.
NPR’s Scott Simon, a genial interviewer, asked Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska, a member of the Ways and Means Committee and an influential figure on agriculture policy, about Trump’s proposal to make vast cuts to food stamps. Smith posited that the program could be cut in ways that “do not harm the most vulnerable.”
“Well, let me ask you this bluntly: Is every American entitled to eat?” Simon queried.
Smith was stumped. “Well, they – nutrition, obviously, we know is very important. And I would hope that we can look to – “
Simon interrupted: “Well, not just important, it’s essential for life. Is every American entitled to eat?”
Smith agreed that nutrition “is essential” but continued to ignore the question about whether Americans are entitled to eat.
Simon tried a third time: “So is every American entitled to eat, and is food stamps something that ought to be that ultimate guarantor?”
Once again, the lawmaker demurred: “I think that we know that, given the necessity of nutrition, there could be a number of ways that we could address that.”
There was more, but it all came down to this: In the United States, in 2017, a powerful member of Congress refuses to grant that Americans should be able to count on eating food.
That exchange should put in perspective the real and present danger Trump poses. His undermining of NATO, European alliances and climate-change cooperation poses grave dangers, but those are somewhat abstract. But taking away Americans’ food is very tangible, and a real possibility.
Trump’s budget would cut programs for low- and moderate-income Americans by $2.5 trillion over 10 years, accounting for 59 percent of the budget’s overall reductions, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The group, a liberal outfit with a reputation for solid math, puts the 10-year cuts to food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) at $193.2 billion, while millionaires would be poised to receive tax cuts of more than $2 trillion.
Trump’s budget is dead on arrival in Congress, but the threat to food stamps is very much alive. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has routinely proposed cuts to SNAP in his budgets. Three years ago, for example, he suggested a $137 billion cut to the program over 10 years by turning it into a block grant for states.
Until the past few years, food stamps had the support of Republicans and Democrats alike. They’ve been around since the Great Depression, but the modern program was a creation of then-Sen. Bob Dole (Republican from Kansas) and late Democratic Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, who, appalled by hunger and malnutrition in America, worked jointly to expand food stamps in 1977.
Food stamps, which give recipients about $1.40 per meal, made serious malnutrition rare in America, and studies by the CBPP and others have found food stamps lift more than 8 million people out of poverty, nearly half of them children. The program roughly doubled after the economic collapse of 2008 – serving 43.6 million and costing $74 billion in 2015 – but rather than recognize that as a sign of the persistent economic struggles that propelled Trump to the presidency, House Republicans used Trump’s election as cause to revive talk of slashing food stamps.
Embracing that effort, apparently, will be Congressman Smith, who, when I asked his office to elaborate on his position, released a statement saying SNAP is a “necessary safety net” but continued his steadfast refusal to say Americans are entitled to eat.
Perhaps Smith has a brilliant scheme to distribute vitamin supplements to all Americans in lieu of food, to convert us to photosynthesis, or to have us survive on Soylent Green plankton like in the 1970s sci-fi film.
Otherwise, he and his Republican colleagues and the Trump administration ought to be honest about what they propose: forcing millions of Americans to go hungry.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.