The obscenity of a Farm Bill that President Bush is vetoing will provide House and Senate Republicans a wonderful chance to stand up and say “Oh Captain, My Captain!”
It was in the movie Dead Poets Society, of course, that prep school boys betrayed their teacher played by Robin Williams — whom they fondly referred to as “Oh-Captain-My-Captain” after the Walt Whitman poem. As Williams entered the classroom for one last time to pick up some personal belongings, under the stern gaze of the school administrator now leading the class, one brave young student stood up on his desk and pledged renewed fealty by saying “Oh Captain, My Captain!”
Despite the rebukes and threats of punishments from the administrator, other students, one by one, stood on their desks, and thus stood up for principle, to pay due homage to their captain. And as each one did, it became easier for another and another and another to find the courage to do likewise.
In the case of the Farm Bill, the “captain” is definitely not President Bush, nor is it John McCain — although both would benefit from Members of Congress rallying around them on the issue, and the Republican Members themselves would benefit if both Bush and/or McCain were politically stronger. But in this case, the “captain” is principle itself, which far too many of GOP federal elected officials abandoned in favor of what they thought, mistakenly, was their own political self-interest.
On Capitol Hill these days, sometimes the very concept of “principle” is tacitly denigrated as a loser’s game, with the notion that standing on principle is almost always and forever the functional equivalent of falling on one’s sword. But the truth is otherwise, as Ronald Reagan showed: that rallying behind principle, on behalf of principle, is the best way to get stronger and to win, and win, and win again.
In the case of the Farm Bill, the animating principle should be what it always should be for the Republican Party that Reagan rebuilt, namely the Jeffersonian insistence on “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”
Few laws enacted in the past quarter-century violate that Jeffersonian standard to a worse degree than does this Farm Bill. It’s a bill that ought to be easy to rally against, both substantively and politically.
LET’S EXAMINE THE politics first. For one thing, it’s one of the few bills on which lawmakers can take a conservative stand without being blasted by the liberal establishment media. Newspaper editorial boards on the right, center and left, including the Washington Post, the Des Moines Register, and even the New York Times, are virtually unanimous against the bill, as are groups such as the National Wildlife Federation.
For another thing, there are clearly more House districts that represent constituencies that would pay for the Farm Bill than there are districts that would benefit from the bill. Also, there is the matter of the GOP as a whole trailing McCain in popularity by more than 20 points. Anything Republican lawmakers can do to hitch themselves to McCain’s wagon, on a matter of principle, while at the same time strengthening his reputation for effective leadership, will make both him and them look good.
McCain, to his great credit, has had the guts to make a strong stand against the Farm Bill, even going so far as to pen a column against it for the Chicago Tribune. If either chamber of Congress sustains Bush’s veto after the overwhelming votes in favor of the Farm Bill when it originally passed, it will send a message that McCain has enough clout to change minds and votes, and also revivify a conservative base that right now is as dispirited as it has been in decades.
Conservatives right now have a losing mentality. They need a victory to unify them, to give them reason to believe they can achieve other victories, and to undermine the confidence of the Left before that confidence becomes a self-fulfilling juggernaut.
ON SUBSTANCE, the bill should be easy to oppose. As McCain wrote, “The majority of subsidies in this proposal go to large commercial farms that average $200,000 in annual income and $2 million in net worth, and the bill allows a single farmer to earn more than $1 million before cutting subsidies.”
And it contains “$5 billion for direct payments each year to farmers, regardless of whether they grow anything” — including, McCain could have noted, people who live nowhere near the “farms” they own.
Thus, opponents could make hay by calling it the “Manhattan Millionaire’s Farm Bill,” and could note, as the Washington Examiner did, that “those subsidies will come from tax dollars confiscated from millions of working families of four making, say, $35,000. How is that fair?”
The Examiner also noted “a provision to ‘sell’ national forest land, necessitating a shifting of the Appalachian Trail, to benefit a Vermont ski resort.” At an American Spectator Newsmakers’ Breakfast on Wednesday, White House Budget Director Jim Nussle called that bit of local-interest feather-nesting the “Trail to Nowhere” clause.
The absurd sugar subsidies in the bill will add billions of dollars to consumer costs each year. The continued ethanol subsidies (of several varieties) will continue exacerbating the global food shortage while actually harming the environment. The special-interest pork and tax breaks — $250 million for a timber company in Montana (the so-called “forest fish” provision: Don’t even ask!), $93 million for race horses, an add-on for salmon fisheries in California, the doubling-up of crop insurance and “disaster relief” — will weigh heavily on taxpayers. The examples could go on and on; perhaps the Orlando Sentinel editorialists put it best by calling it “a rotten bill fit for the compost heap.”
STILL, BIG-MONEY agribusiness interests seem to be holding sway with the vast majority of Congress. Too many congressmen are too afraid to cross those powers-that-be in order to stand for principle.
That’s why what’s needed is an “Oh-Captain-My-Captain” moment. What is needed is for one brave soul in the Republican caucus in either Chamber, one who actually voted for this monstrosity, to stand up at a caucus/conference meeting (figuratively and, if he goes in for showmanship, quite literally on a desk) and say the equivalent of “Oh Jefferson, my Jefferson!”
He can say he was wrong. He can say this bill steals from labor the bread it has earned and gives that tax money directly to millionaires. He can say that he has been pressured by agribusiness interests but is withstanding the pressure. He can say it is time for Republicans to remember that they are supposed to be good fiscal stewards, and time for them to hang together so they won’t all hang separately.
He should say that he will vote to uphold the president’s veto, not for the president’s sake at all, but for the sake of good governance. And then he should turn to another Member who voted for the bill and ask that Member, too, to pledge to uphold the veto — to stand for principle come hell or high subsidies.
And, one by one, enough Members who voted for the bill the first time should pledge fealty to Captain Principle by sustaining the veto.
The fact is that it is possible for Members to move to the right and the center at the same time — because, on fiscal issues, conservatives see eye-to-eye with many independents. Ross Perot built a major third-party challenge on the strength of promises of fiscal rectitude. Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota doing the same.
If not even one-third of one House of Congress can sustain the president’s veto of a Manhattan Millionaire’s Trail to Nowhere Farm Bill, then it will indeed be true that we must “with mournful tread,/Walk the deck my Captain lies,/Fallen cold and dead.”
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