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Yes, You Should Be Totally Outraged By the Farm Bill

It's not just a microcosm of congressional insensitivity and bad economics. It's a small moral play about the role of money in politics.

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Reuters

The farm bill passed by the House of Representatives yesterday is pretty much a disgrace. Republicans took legislation that had historically been 80 percent food stamps and 20 percent mostly awful and antiquated agribusiness subsidies. And they passed something that is 0 percent food stamps and 100 percent mostly awful and antiquated agribusiness subsidies.

"Billions for farmers, nothing for the poor" is a stark assessment, but a fair one.

Food stamps -- or, as they are now officially called, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) -- went out to more than 46 million people in 2012 with the average individual receiving just over $130 in benefits. That's 73 percent of the monthly grocery bill for men under the USDA's "thrifty" plan, as the Washington Post explains in the graph below. The current program lapses at the end of September.

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The GOP's aversion to funding food stamps is cultural and deeply ideological. But the less obvious background music playing here is the powerful and pernicious role of money in politics.

Three weeks ago, in a report that had nothing to do with farms, the Sunlight Foundation revealed that just 0.01% of the U.S. population -- one ten-thousandth of the country -- accounted for 28 percent of all disclosed political donations in the 2012 election. About one-third the capacity of a large football stadium funds about one-third of national elections.

This is just a factoid. But it's a revealing factoid. Relying on the wealthiest Americans to finance our elections isn't bad for the obvious reason, which is that rich people "buy" elections. It's bad for the less obvious reason that rich people buy the attention of the electeds. As Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, recently told the Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies, senators and congresspeople are functionally telemarketers, whose ambition requires them to spend the majority of their time raising money for the next election.

This is about the farm bill, how exactly? Elected representatives trying to raise millions of dollars a pop don't have people on food stamps or unemployment insurance on their speed dial. That would be absurd. But they do have ag lobbyists and large farm donors. And they do have deficit-weary financiers who are scared of debt and the growing safety net. The people on the other ends of these fundraising calls (or at these fundraising events) wield a powerful weapon. Their influence shapes "the limits of acceptable political discourse, one conversation at a time" to the point where passing a bill without increased farm subsidies seems wholly unacceptable but passing a bill without food assistance for 47 million families feels a-okay.

"It doesn't really matter what low-income or middle-income voters think about a policy," Sunlight's Lee Drutman wrote. "They might favor it. They might oppose it. It has no real effect on how likely the policy is to happen." When the rich and the poor disagree on policy, Marty Gilens has shown, Washington basically sides with the rich.

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The mechanics of this "for the 0.01%, by the 0.01%" government don't explain everything you need to know about the farm bill vote. It can't. Democrats have to play by the same call-your-rich-friends rules too, and they support funding for SNAP. The House GOP is antagonistic toward the safety net for ideological reasons shaped by culture, geography, and certain assumptions about work ethic and the role of government spending.

But in a system that requires elected officials to perform the duties of a high-end telemarketer, the poor are easy to ignore. Or, put more generously, they're hard to remember. Republicans say they'll get to food-stamp funding later this month. But their first vote was to protect big agriculture because big ag is on the speed-dial. First call. First vote. That's just Washington at work.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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