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Washington's Deeper Immorality

A Commentary By Joe Conason

While the well-deserved departure of Anthony Weiner draws rapt attention in our tabloid nation, the depredations of less colorful but more powerful politicians go unnoticed, so long as no genitalia are involved.

At the moment, for instance, Republican leaders in the House and the Senate are mounting yet another series of assaults on some of the most vulnerable Americans -- the poor single mothers who cannot feed their children, and the long-term unemployed who still have no prospect of work nearly two years after the recession supposedly ended.

Hardly anyone other than a lobbyist would normally pay much attention to the machinations of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, but that is where truly indecent behavior is running rampant these days. Members of that subcommittee, who oversee the Women, Infants and Children (or WIC) federal nutrition support program for the poor, recently decreed reductions in its annual funding, just as food prices are rising more rapidly than in many years.

Breaching a long bipartisan commitment to making sure this successful program's funding will be sufficient to the need, the subcommittee's Republican majority has decided we can no longer afford to ensure healthy nutrition for every hungry mother and child. (What we can apparently always afford, however, are more and bigger tax cuts for billionaires and petroleum companies.)

By cutting $650 million from WIC, according to the experts at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the subcommittee will deprive hundreds of thousands of indigent women and children of program services, which include healthy foods, nutrition counseling and referrals to health care providers when necessary. The exact number of victims will depend on how fast food prices go up. But there will surely be many more infants and children who must cope with the ill effects of low birth weight and anemia, and all the other ills arising from bad nutrition in this wealthy and verdant nation.

As usual, the mean impulse to save money by punishing the poor is short-sighted, since the obvious result is a growing population that is either crippled at birth or ruined in youth, requiring expensive hospitalization, special education or, eventually, prison cells. And as usual, the justifications for stupid policy are based on botched data and false arguments, such as the Republican claim that WIC is wasting 40 percent of its budget on administrative costs, when the actual number is 9 percent.

But then there is little real prudence among the proponents of these cuts.

Nor is there much mercy among them, either, despite the professed Christianity of the Ag subcommittee members, who mostly come from bastions of religiosity such as Iowa, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. No doubt these Bible-thumping politicians all know that Jesus once told his disciples to "suffer the little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Somehow in conservative circles, his profound remark seems to end at "suffer the little children."

Slashing WIC is only one aspect of the broad assault on the poor mounted by Republicans in Congress since they regained power. Just last week, House Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp, R- Mich., and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, proposed radical changes in unemployment insurance that would snatch $31 billion in benefits from families whose breadwinner has been jobless for six months or more.

Their bill would permit states to stop paying any benefits to those families -- and to use the money instead for other purposes, like reducing business taxes. If passed, that legislation will further reduce economic demand and drive more families into poverty.

And then there are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cuts in the 2012 Republican budget, which would reduce spending on food stamps by more than $120 billion over the coming decade. If you've lost your job, after all, why should you or your children expect to eat?

Yes, Weiner is gone from Washington, and good riddance. Will we now scrutinize the far deeper immorality that reigns there?


See Other Political Commentary.

See Other Commentary by Joe Conason.

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