On Thursday you heard about a bill apparently aimed at cutting off food stamps and other welfare benefits to the family of anyone on strike against their employer:
You really can't get any lower than this: House Republicans have introduced legislation that, if passed into law, would deny food stamp assistance to any family member of a striking worker.
And you may also have heard that this was, perhaps, not as big a change in current law as was originally thought:
The problem with all of this is that it’s not news. I know because I work at a hunger-relief organization, and part of what we do is help individuals and families sign up for food stamps (now known as SNAP). It has now been confirmed to me, by three people who work here, including our policy manager, that this has been the case dating back to about 1996.
But furthermore, while the language is offensive, it’s largely unworkable if the idea is to kick people already receiving SNAP off the program. When you apply, there’s a requirement to report if you’re on strike. If you’re already receiving SNAP, it’s a lot harder to determine that, simply due to the fact that the welfare offices where the majority of SNAP cases are handled are overworked, understaffed, inefficient, and in general swamped.
But don't turn away just yet. This bill (H.R. 1135 and a newer version, H.R. 1167), styled the "Welfare Reform Act of 2011," is actually chock-full of extremist agenda items. If the backwards stab at striking workers doesn't do it for you, how about this? Remember H.R. 3? The "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act"? That was the one that freaked everybody out by trying to redefine rape so that it'd no longer be a safe exception to extremist abortion prohibitions.
Well, public backlash forced Republicans to remove that particular provision, but as I hope you're aware, H.R. 3 hides even bigger dangers than the redefinition of rape, if you can believe such a thing is possible.
H.R. 3 would revoke eligibility for tax deductions related to health insurance costs for individuals or companies who buy plans that offer coverage for abortion. It's no longer enough, as is the case under the Affordable Care Act, that people interested in purchasing insurance with such coverage do so by actually writing a separate check, drawn entirely from private or personal funds. H.R. 3 declares that because all money is "fungible," when you take a tax deduction that puts "federal dollars" in your pocket. And because those dollars are then available for you to use to pay for... anything... including your health care coverage, in order to prevent you from using them to pay for the kinds of coverage these Republicans don't like, the government will step in and take your deductions away.
So, what does this "Welfare Reform Act" have to do with that?
Good question! The answer, of course, is: absolutely nothing. Unless you're a Republican so driven in this ideological war that you'll always be on the lookout for any excuse to launch an attack. And that probably explains why Title VI of this "welfare reform" bill actually contains... the key provisions of H.R. 3.
Interesting, no? The Republican "welfare reform" bill is alleged to do virtually nothing—or at least nothing viable—to change current law with respect to welfare benefits, but it does attempt to severely restrict people's ability to pay for health insurance that covers abortion, even with their own, private money. What interest would "welfare reformers" have in making it more difficult for Americans doing well enough to be able to pay for their health insurance out of pocket?
None, really. It's just another example of Republicans leveraging the old "Istook amendment" scheme to control the destiny of any dollar that passes at some point through federal hands. So now, it's not just "welfare" if the government is giving you federal dollars in the form of food stamps to keep your family fed. It's "welfare" if the government is "giving" you dollars in the form of a tax deduction, too. Take a deduction? You're "on the dole," Mr. and Ms. Taxpayer!
When I first raised the alarm about H.R. 3, I said that its use of the Istook amendment fungibility theory would open the door to all sorts of invasions, targeting all the Republicans' favorite boogeymen:
If the anti-choice zealots can successfully enact a law that gives the federal government the inroads and leverage to impose tax penalties on the availability of abortion services coverage, what prevents their using the same power to penalize contraception coverage? And that's just the smallest theoretical step you can make from the abortion issue. Nevermind that the theory is the same whether they want to reach into other areas of medical coverage, or anything else they'd like to get their hands on. Same sex partner benefits, for instance? Health benefits won through collective bargaining by public employees' unions? You can all certainly imagine more.
And you should try to imagine them. I would encourage you to try to think about how they could come up with a way to burn your own favorite issue group, no matter what it might be. Because this theory gives them the power to do it. And if it's left to the choice community advocacy groups to fight the battle on their own, it'll be over pretty quickly, and the "Small Government Republicans" will be right on your doorstep next.
It didn't take long for the theory to be deployed against union workers, first in Wisconsin. Now it's made its way to Washington, called into action to help Republicans stamp out the threat of
international terrorism starving children in union households, even though there's a strong argument that it'd either be entirely duplicative of current law, or be largely ineffective. (And I'm not 100% sure about that. Although strikers may not report their ineligibility voluntarily, it surely creates some liability for those who don't.) And I suppose now would be a good time to ask ourselves why we think Republicans would include this provision in their bill if it really wouldn't do much to change current law.
So, how are we doing in terms of coming together across issue silos to combat this threat? Did the reproductive rights advocates get (or seek) a lot of help from outside their little island in fighting this one? Because here they are, on union doorsteps, just as predicted. And by the way, if you think you've beaten H.R. 3 by focusing on the provisions redefining rape and hammering Republicans as extremists, do note that this time, their abortion restrictions are tucked away in a corner of a "welfare reform" bill. And they'll be in every bill they can shoehorn them into from here on in.