You might think MSNBC is a pretty friendly venue for Democratic politicians, and usually you’d be right. But woe unto the Democrat who strays even slightly from the progressive line — as Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow found out the hard way Tuesday afternoon.
Stabenow was in the middle of a victory lap with MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, after the agriculture chair’s farm bill sailed through the Senate to the president’s desk. The massive bill approves nearly $1 trillion in spending over the next decade, with most of the funding for the food stamp program.
The Democratic senator explained how she was able to convince enough Republicans to jump onto the bill, even after stripping out things like welfare cuts, drug testing and limited maternity leave.
“To have credibility, I said, ‘Of course’ that I would address fraud and misuse,” she said. “And here’s what we did: If you have less than $20 in help for heating assistance in the year — less than $20 — then the system will go back to an old system where you have to actually produce a utility bill to get a credit for a utility bill.”
“You cannot justify somebody who is getting a dollar in heating assistance help, to give them a $50 credit for a utility bill that they don’t have,” she explained. “And if we’re going to protect and fight for additional help — which is what I want, to provide additional help for people in Michigan and across the country — we have to be credible and be willing to say ‘Yep, you’re right’ when there’s something happening that is just not right.”
Heresy! “Senator, let me interrupt you for a second,” Wagner said. “You used the words ‘fraud and abuse’ when we’re talking about a program that is giving people who are poor enough to qualify for food stamps more money to put food on the table. … The narrative here, that people who are on government assistance are somehow fraudulent or engaged in fraudulent behavior has become a very powerful meme on the right.”
“And I worry,” she continued, “when I hear Democrats talk about — whether it was a loophole or whether it was a special dispensation — but categorizing that as fraud somehow maligns people who are incredibly needy and who were using this money to eat! And I guess I just want to just get your response to that.”
“Absolutely, Alex, and actually I wasn’t calling that fraud,” Stabenow replied. “It’s actually a misuse of the system. We need to be giving everyone additional help in this economy because it’s very, very difficult for families to make ends meet. But this is a misuse, where people who don’t have a utility bill are getting credit for a utility bill.”
The senator then claimed that the “fraud” stems largely from businesses and “lottery winners” seeking to take advantage of welfare programs — never the poor themselves. And she listed a range of liberal causes — including “quadrupling” the money given to farmers markets, local food system and school gardens — that the farm bill promoted.
That seemed to be enough for Wagner, who congratulated the senator on her successful bill.
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