Reagan's Revolution Devolves Into a Food-Stamp Skirmish

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.
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Last week, Republicans in the House of Representatives delivered on their threat to reduce funding for food stamps. In a narrow 217-210 vote -- every Democrat voted against the measure, as did 15 Republicans -- the House moved to cut $39 billion from the program over the next decade.

The clash over food stamps may seem like minor political posturing, but the vote could be far more momentous than Republicans -- and perhaps Democrats -- understand. The two parties are unwittingly re-fighting a battle of many years ago. The distance between then and now suggests that the conservative revolution inaugurated by President Ronald Reagan may have reached a crossroads.

This earlier battle over food stamps was joined in January 1981. Reagan had decisively defeated Jimmy Carter two months earlier, and the Senate was in Republican hands for the first time in 28 years. Reagan, who had made "welfare queens" an epithet, and food stamps a symbol of the ills of big government, immediately targeted the program for steep cuts: $1.8 billion, or 16 percent.

Reagan had powerful allies in Congress. Senator Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who had taken over the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee, despised food stamps, which he memorably described as "one of the most expensive, most abused and badly managed programs in the federal budget." Helms immediately declared war on this "fiscal monster," and held hearings to root out "parasites" that had "infested" the program, summoning witness after witness to relay tales of abuse and fraud.

A few lonely defenders of food stamps made their case: Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont assailed Helms, though he acknowledged that the program had what he delicately described as an "image problem." A staff member in Leahy's office told the New York Times that most Democrats were scared "and with the mail they're getting from their constituents, it's hard to defend the program. I don't think it's a winner at home politically."

Seventy-seven senators, including many Democrats, voted for a measure that cut $1.8 billion from the program. David Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat eager to prove his budget-cutting bona fides, declared: "The food stamp program has been a wild horse on the range. Finally, we have it corralled -- temporarily."

The House was still in Democratic hands, but Republicans riding Reagan's coattails had made significant inroads, and conservative Democrats from the South came around to the idea of cuts. The House began buckling before the rising conservative tide. One liberal member, Representative Fred Richmond of New York, said he was trying to defend "the least harmful cuts I can dream up." Liberals ultimately lost, and $1.4 billion was stripped from the program.

The budget reconciliation process led to more cuts. One of the program's few defenders, Representative Leon Panetta of California, a Democrat on the House Budget Committee, complained that the Republicans were "bypassing the committee process" in their zeal to impose additional cuts on food stamps. The final budget compromise took $1.7 billion out of the program just as the country entered a brutal recession. Congress nonetheless made additional cuts the following year.

Even though the program was starved of funding, food stamps survived the Reagan years, the welfare reforms of the 1990s and beyond. In no small part, this is thanks to powerful defenders such as Panetta, who left the House in 1993 but remains active. During the recent recession, reliance on food stamps -- now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP -- exploded. Today, 15 percent of the U.S. population uses food stamps, and public opinion polls suggest that a large majority of Americans favor either expanding SNAP or keeping the program in its current form.

That hasn't stopped Republicans from trying to re-live their glory days of 1981. But the narrow vote in the House last week should give them pause, as should the fact that their measure will almost certainly die in the Senate. There will be no 77-17 vote slashing funds for the program this time.

Something has changed. But Republicans haven't. Now, they may be the ones with an "image problem."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net