Can We Really Expect Politicians to Vote Against Bills That Make Them Money?

Despite earning a small fortune from subsidy payments, Rep. Steven Fincher doesn’t want to give poor people money for food.

(Bill Clark/ Getty)

Sep 5, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Would you vote against a bill that makes you a millionaire? If the millions aren't bonus enough, what if voting for the bill would make you even more popular with your fringe political faction by making it easier to cut social services for the poor?

That's what the ongoing Farm Bill debate has come down to for Tennessee's Representative Robert Fincher, who voted on July 12 for the SNAP-less version of the bill, continuing the farm subsidy programs that have helped make him a millionare and isolating food assistance programs—which may soon be cut by as much as $40 billion.

Historically, the reasoning for including farm subsidies and nutrition benefits in the same bill was to help connect the political interests and harvest excesses of rural America with the urban poor and the politicians who represented them. The food stamp program was designed as a way for the government to sell some of the surplus crops it purchased from farmers to help control prices, creating a very real economic link between the agricultural and social safety-net aspects of the Farm Bill.

Food stamps—now known as Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program—have changed in many ways over the years, particularly in terms of the demographics and geography of recipients. There’s an increasing number of suburbanites enrolled in the program, and a cover story from today’s New York Times shows how the hunger debate is in many ways centered right in the rural farming districts that were once feeding poor urban Americans with their surpluses.

Surrounded by corn and soybean farms—including one owned by the local Republican congressman, Representative Stephen Fincher—Dyersburg, about 75 miles north of Memphis, provides an eye-opening view into Washington’s food stamp debate. Mr. Fincher, who was elected in 2010 on a Tea Party wave and collected nearly $3.5 million in farm subsidies from the government from 1999 to 2012, recently voted for a farm bill that omitted food stamps.

Pointing out that a small-government, fiscal conservative became a millionaire thanks to a government program that’s been called, among other things, a “Soviet-style affront to the free market” by the Chicago Tribune is not exactly endearing; Fincher didn’t respond to interview requests from the Times.

His comments made following a Farm Bill vote in May, however, play better in the story than any answer he might have given to reporter Sheryl Gay Stolber’s questions: “The role of citizens, of Christianity, of humanity, is to take care of each other, not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country”

Holding such opposing views on two government programs that give money to taxpayers has Slate’s Matthew Yglesias calling Fincher a “moral obscenity.”

“The problem with Fincher isn’t that he’s scooped up farm subsidies,” writes Yglesias, “it’s that the appropriations bill he votes for continues to direct huge subsidies to rich farmers like himself even while he preaches the evils of government spending to support the poor.”

And he’s by no means alone in this particular bit of hypocrisy. The days of Congress comprising nothing but farmers is long, long gone, but there are currently 11 members of the House who have direct or indirect farming interests that lead to the federal government cutting them checks for subsidies or other forms of direct payments:

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL)

Rep. Kristi Noem (R- SD)

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA)

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK)

Rep. David Valadao (R-CA)

Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN)

Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO)

Rep. John Kline's (R-MN)

Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX)

Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN)

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX)

The names of every one of this all-Republican crew (there are some Democrats in the Senate that receive farm subsidy payments) appeared in the Yes column when the House passed its version of the Farm Bill that disregarded food assistance altogether.

Congress members have to pay taxes, of course, so it’s not like voting on fiscal issues that affect them presents an insurmountable conflict of interests. Still, there’s no one in the House or Senate who would be directly impacted by changes to SNAP. An individual with no dependents has to make less than $1,211 in gross monthly income (“a household's total, nonexcluded income, before any deductions have been made,” according to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service) to qualify for food stamps.

That means that your annual take has to be less than $14,532 to receive the benefit; the current base salary for House and Senate members, $174,000, is nearly 12 times that amount. So while 11 Congress members and 4 senators benefit from farm subsidy programs, no member of either house is currently on SNAP (unless, that is, welfare fraud is as rampant in Congress as the GOP believes it is in the rest of the country).

Monthly SNAP benefits vary state-by-state, but in Tennessee, families received an average of $132.20 per person in 2012, or $1586.40 for the whole year. By comparison, Rep. Fincher received $70,574 in direct payment subsidies in 2012, according to the Environmental Working Group.

And what about Indiana, home of Rep. Marlin Stustzman, who put forth an amendment back in June that proposed removing SNAP from the farm bill? The average payment is a whopping $132.46 per month, yet Stutzman received $6,654 from the program in 2012. In 2010, the congressman told the Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, IN that “we can’t say no” to subsidy checks—which the USDA says in untrue.

In Tennessee’s 8th Congressional district, the district Fincher represents, there were more than 100,000 people enrolled in SNAP in 2011—the most recent data available from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. The same district leads the state in farm subsidies, and statewide, just 10 percent of farmers collected 84 percent of all payments, according to the EWG’s farm subsidy tracking.

So who exactly are he and his farmer-congress member colleagues representing?