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Beam: Distrust creating stalemates

Last Modified: Friday, June 21, 2013 5:02 PM

By Jim Beam / American Press

You can’t help but be amused — and totally frustrated — when you read the news coming out of the nation’s Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Immigration reform and the federal farm bill are the latest examples of Congress’ inability to get anything done.

A third simmering controversy centers around a free federal cellphone program. It is a major reason Republicans don’t trust the Obama administration on the other two issues. So, let’s talk about the phone program first.

In 1985, the Lifeline Assistance program was created to make sure low-income citizens weren’t cut off from emergency services, job searches or a communications device for children in single-famly homes. At first, it only covered land line phones in homes. Cellphones were added when they became a primary source of communication.

Persons who qualify for Lifeline Assistance get a free phone and 250 free minutes and 250 free text messages each month. The program is paid for by telephone subscribers who pay a “federal universal service charge” of up to $3.22 a month on their phone bills.

The cost of the program was $819 million in 2008, and it mushroomed to $2.2 billion in 2012. Abuses have been rampant. Families and individuals have received more than one phone, some are sold to buy drugs and make other purchases and enforcement has been extremely lax.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Arkansas, want to either do away with the program or change it back to only cover home land lines. Their chances of succeeding are awfully slim in view of the administration’s belief that no checks and balances are necessary in any federal program.

Griffin said to Fox News back in March, “There is a lot of waste in it, and we need to be asking ourselves, ‘Where do we draw the line? Do we give everybody an iPad next? A computer? Is that the role the federal government should be playing?’”

In light of recent history, none of that is out of the realm of possibility.

OK, what about the farm bill and immigration reform?

A major hang-up that defeated a five-year farm bill in the U.S. House is the federal food stamp program. The House bill would have cut the $80 billion a year program by $2 billion a year. The Senate earlier passed its farm bill by a comfortable 66-27 margin. It reduced the food stamp program by $400 million, one-fifth of the House reduction.

Republicans say that isn’t enough. Democrats think $2 billion a year is too much. And Democrats voted against the bill in large numbers when new work requirements were added.

Louisiana House members split down the middle on the farm bill. U.S. Reps. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette; Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge; and Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, voted for the bill. Reps. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, John Fleming, R-Minden and Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans were opposed.

Do opponents of cutting the food stamp program really believe there are no abuses that ought to be eliminated? And have we totally abandoned the idea that most able-bodied Americans should try to work for a living, even when they are on the receiving end of federal handouts?

The free phone and food stamp issues give Americans just cause to believe a 10-year path to citizenship shouldn’t begin right away for 11 million illegal immigrants who are already here. A number of Republican congressmen believe the federal government should first prove it can stop more illegal entries at the border.

A Senate compromise on border security would double the Border Patrol with 20,000 new agents, use 18 new unmanned surveillance drones, add 350 miles to the existing 350 miles of border fencing and use other devices to stop the flow. However, it is going to take a decade to put it all in place.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., helped broker the compromise, and he said Americans want strong, comprehensive immigration reform.

“... They want to know that 10 years from now, we won’t find ourselves in this same position, having to address the same problem,” he said.

House Republicans, who are skeptical, want to see some results at the border before temporary legal status is given to illegal immigrants.

National Journal, a Washington political news magazine, said, “Here are their demands: They want solid border-security targets written directly into the law, such that the federal government can’t get around them. They want people who overstay their visas to be deportable. They want state and local police to get in on the enforcement game, noting that traffic cops outnumber federal immigration agents on the streets. Their constituents trust their local police force far more than they trust the Obama administration.”

That’s it in a nutshell. Many Republicans know they are in trouble with Hispanics over the immigration issue. However, a number of them have reason to think promises of a more secure border won’t happen unless that comes before any other concessions. You can understand that view in light of the federal government’s inability or unwillingness to stop abuses in the food stamp program and the cellphone rip-offs.

    • • •

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com

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