When federal policymakers start with a bizarre premise -- low-income Americans simply aren't suffering enough -- it's truly amazing to see where they end up.
A plan by House leaders to cut $40 billion from the food stamp program -- twice the amount of cuts proposed in a House bill that failed in June -- threatens to derail efforts by the House and Senate to work together to complete a farm bill before agriculture programs expire on Sept. 30.
The bill that would double cuts previously sought by House Republicans was announced Thursday by Representative Frank D. Lucas, Republican of Oklahoma and chairman of House Agriculture Committee, during a lunch with lobbyists, and first reported by Reuters.
About a month ago, after the Senate approved a bipartisan farm bill rather easily, the House pushed its own right-wing version, which was almost laughably extreme. House Republicans pushed for $20 billion in food-stamp cuts, along with drug tests for recipients -- because if you're struggling to buy groceries in the wake of an economic crisis, conservative lawmakers believe you deserve to be treated as a suspected drug addict.
Much to the surprise of the GOP's own leadership, that bill failed, not because it was too ridiculous, but because House Republican members concluded it just wasn't punitive enough.
And so, instead of adopting a more moderate bill, making a compromise with the Senate easier, House Republicans, in their infinite wisdom, decided to make their version much more right-wing -- doubling the cuts to food aid for the poor, while imposing work requirements and drug tests.
If Ayn Rand were alive today, this is the sort of bill that would lead her to say, "Aren't you guys overdoing it a bit?"
Remember, the farm bill used to be incredibly easy to pass, even in a divided Congress. Reaching a compromise was a straightforward exercise -- Republicans would get subsidies for agribusiness interests; Democrats would help low income families put food on the table. There just wasn't much to fight about.
But as congressional Republicans have become almost frighteningly radicalized, what was once easy is now nearly impossible. They start with an offensive premise -- the government should deliberately make life harder for those already struggling -- and then work backwards.
Looking ahead, there's simply no way Congress will approve cuts this severe, but therein lies the point: the House GOP majority is staking out a negotiating position by staking out a comically extreme position in advance of bicameral talks.
But in the process, House Republicans are making the failure of the farm bill quite likely.
"There they go again," said Rep. Collin C. Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee. "Apparently, the Republican leadership plans to bring up yet another political messaging bill to nowhere in an effort to try and placate the extreme right wing of their party. Clearly they have no interest in compromise or actual legislating.
"Adding an additional $20 billion in nutrition cuts, on top of the poison pill nutrition amendments that brought down the Agriculture Committee's bipartisan farm bill in June, effectively kills any hopes of passing a five-year farm bill this year.
"I've repeatedly told these guys, we don't have to do this. If the House would just name conferees, members can conference the House 'farm only' bill with the Senate's farm bill during August and produce a compromise for both Houses to pass. Through today's action, the House Majority has clearly shown they have no interest in getting a farm bill done. The American people should be outraged."
Congress will have to pass something in September, which will be challenging -- House Republican leaders, after taking four weeks off in August, have decided they only want to work nine days in the month of September.