Devil in the Details

Food Stamped

Not that they've advertised it, but Republicans are gunning for food-stamp recipients.

It's all part of their low-visibility war on the poor. In early May, reports surfaced about the nasty surprise they've planned for poor seniors signing up for the new Medicare prescription-drug entitlement. Turns out that food stamps will be cut proportionally to the cash value of the drugs that seniors no longer have to buy out of pocket. But that was only the latest Republican attack on the program, which serves more than 25 million Americans. An even sneakier assault has been playing out in slow motion through the budget process.

In February, President Bush earned plaudits from a wide range of very surprised observers by including in his budget proposal several billion dollars of cuts in farm subsidies. Many commentators championed his political courage, but savvy observers suspected from the outset that the president's talk of cutting agricultural aid was a charade. Here's why: A budget resolution doesn't specify cuts in programs. Rather, broad instructions are sent to a congressional committee to cut a certain amount of spending from any entitlement program in its jurisdiction. The House and Senate Agriculture committees have jurisdiction over farm subsidies -- but also over the federal food-stamp program.

As luck would have it, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Virginia's Bob Goodlatte, is a longtime crusader against waste, fraud, and abuse in the food-stamp program, having for years sponsored legislation to restrict various groups from access to food stamps. Following the release of Bush's budget proposal, Goodlatte signaled that he had no intention of going along with the agricultural-aid cuts, and every intention of foisting required spending cuts onto the food-stamp program instead. In March, his Senate counterpart, Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss, echoed Goodlatte's stated intention to cut food-stamp funding, telling The Associated Press that “we can come up with a significant number there.”

On April 12, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns acknowledged that the administration “recognize[d] that Congress may have other proposals to achieve these savings” and was open to considering “other cost-savings recommendations” besides farm-subsidy cuts. Bob Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that food stamps will end up sustaining between half and all of the total $3 billion over five years that the agriculture committees must cut from their mandatory programs.

As usual, the folks the Republicans want to go after are the ones at the bottom of the food chain.

-- Sam Rosenfeld

War Requiem

Marla Ruzicka always knew how to get people's attention, Lieutenant Lars Ewing told the hundreds of people crammed into Room 325 of the Russell Senate Office Building for her memorial service on May 14. Plainly struggling to retain his composure, Ewing -- after turning his head to the side, scrunching up his face, and uttering an audible, “Whew” -- told the gathering a story about his childhood friend, a 28-year-old human-rights worker who was killed in Iraq by a terrorist's bomb on April 16. In particular, he recalled one instance when Ruzicka pulled up in front of Ewing's house with a newly bought car and tried out the thunderous horn. “I didn't care how the car drove,” Ewing recalled her saying. “I just wanted something with a loud horn.”

Ruzicka did more than get people's attention. Through her organization, Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, she got them to support her cause. In April 2003, Senator Patrick Leahy, after prompting from Ruzicka, introduced a bill that allocated funds for civilian victims of the war in Afghanistan. Eventually, he won appropriations totaling about $30 million for programs for civilians affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This May, Congress voted to rename one of those programs, the Civilian Assistance Program, the “Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund.”

In Iraq, Ruzicka won wide admiration for the way she reached out to people who'd been injured in the war -- and the families of civilian casualties -- and helped them file claims for restitution from the U.S. government. Of course, not everybody was impressed; nine days after her death, conservative commentator Debbie Schlussel -- a self-styled ombudsperson of the Arab-terrorism nexus and its presumed collaborators -- contended in a piece for David Horowitz's that Ruzicka's work had detracted from the efforts of the U.S. military. Her death from a suicide car bomb that also killed her colleague Faiz Ali Salim, wrote Schlussel, was “poetic justice.”

Schlussel's opinion was definitely not shared by those in attendance at the memorial. The group included many usual suspects, like Senators Leahy and Dianne Feinstein, Bobby Muller of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, author Peter Bergen, Ralph Nader; and any number of scruffy-looking war photographers and foreign correspondents. But it also included some unusual ones, with several military officers in attendance. Jonathan Tracy, a former captain who processed claims for Iraqi civilians, said he used to go jogging at dawn with Ruzicka on a path that led to the Tigris River. He said he thought that she did excellent work. “Her agenda was very clear and honest. Marla was not a glory hound. Nor did Marla have any anti-military agenda. Her only agenda was to get assistance,” he wrote in a letter that was read aloud by Captain Keith Bracey at the memorial service.

At a reception afterward in Adams Morgan, Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, a Pentagon public-affairs officer, drank a gin and tonic and talked about Ruzicka. “Her death really affected me,” he said. “It was the first time since the start of the war that I cried.”

-- Tara McKelvey

T-Bond Fake

Seeking to reassure those Americans concerned that replacing Social Security benefits with stock-market investments would be just too risky, President Bush came up with a new alternative at his April 28 press conference. “I propose that one investment option consist entirely of Treasury bonds,” the president said. This, according to Bush, would make private accounts “a safer investment that will allow an American to build a nest egg that he or she can pass on to whomever he or she chooses.”

And, indeed, Treasury bonds are, unlike stocks, a very safe place to park your money. Unfortunately, under Bush's plan, such investments, though guaranteed, are also guaranteed to lose money. According to the latest available figures, a 20-year inflation-protected TIP (the safest investment around) earns a real yield of 1.83 percent per year. At the same time, for every dollar you invest in your private accounts, Bush would have your Social Security benefit reduced by $1 plus 3 percent over the rate of inflation. Your safe investment, once you do the addition and subtraction, is thus guaranteed to lose 1.13 percent per year -- plus administrative costs.

Unanswered questions abound about this 3-percent “clawback,” which is essential to ensuring that private accounts don't lead to a future of never-ending deficits. If, as Bush proposes, the accounts are to be inheritable assets, the heirs of people who die before reaching retirement age would presumably inherit the clawback as well. But what if the combined effects of two clawbacks would reduce the traditional Social Security benefit below the guaranteed minimum the White House says it wants to preserve? What if somebody tries to will you an account that, like our bondholder's, is a money loser? Can you refuse to accept it? It's unclear whether the administration hasn't thought about these issues or just doesn't care.

Either way, Americans would be well-advised to double-check before accepting the president's investment advice.

-- Matthew Yglesias

Simon Does

The newest Democratic Party think tank won't be focusing on ideas, big or small. It will be devoted entirely to the art of politics. “My whole fear,” said a trim, new-model, salad-munching Joe Trippi at the New Democratic Network's (NDN) lunchtime launch of the new project at the NDN offices on North Capitol Street, “was we [at the Dean campaign] were the Japanese at Pearl Harbor: We had woken up the conservative movement to another whole medium they needed to own.” Now, “the Republicans and conservatives are pouring millions of dollars into this.”

So it is that NDN leader Simon Rosenberg, with the financial assistance (to the tune of $1 million to $1.5 million a year) of Andrew and Deborah Rappaport, have founded the New Politics Institute (NPI). There is broad agreement in the Democratic Party that the Republicans, in the last election, paid more attention to the techniques of persuading, mobilizing, reaching, and organizing voters. The NPI's agenda is to pull apart political practices from arguments on policy so that every wing of the party can be as fully invested in -- and skilled at practicing -- the most up-to-date campaigning techniques.

“If only one small part of the progressive family is using modern means, we will always be a minority party,” warned Rosenberg.

The new project will study the rise of the conservative movement over the past 30 years, the changing demographics of the American public, the media, and marketing. Fellows will include Trippi, voter-mobilization guru Cecile Richards, pollster Mark Penn, and blogger Markos Moulitsas Zúniga. The “nondenominational progressive” institute will seek to answer such conundrums as: How do you broaden the use of the Internet in organizing voters? What is the potential for video-to-phone politicking as the new technologies evolve? Or for podcasting? How can Democratic database mining be improved to better target and persuade voters? How can voter files be improved?

“It's too easy to denigrate this stuff as tactical, to not see it as transformative. We have to stop relegating this stuff to an intellectual backwater,” said Rosenberg, and to a handful of set-in-their-ways consultants who are paid to think about these problems only every four years.

“What I really like about this project,” added Moulitsas by phone, “is it's very much focused on winning elections.”

Garance Franke-Ruta


Punditry's not an exact science, and even the best writers make the wrong call now and again. Herewith, on our 15th anniversary, a selection of bad predictions from the Prospect archive:

  • August 2003: “Arnold Schwarzenegger will not be the next governor of California.”
    • November 2002: “Not only might Saddam Hussein turn his weapons of mass destruction and chemical weapons against our troops; he likely would wield them against the civilian populations of neighboring countries and against Israel.”
      • November 1998: “The U.S. economy looks like it is slowing down rapidly.” (Two years too early.)
        • July 1997: “Interfaces like the current browsers for navigating the Web are relatively open (they connect to nearly all sites), but more closed interfaces, like the menu of options on television sets in hotel rooms, suggest how a more closed regime might be re-established.”
          • September 1996: “The career of Paul Krugman epitomizes, if in extreme form, how the conventions of the economics profession work to block a resurgence of liberal activism.”
            • Summer 1994: “Love it or hate it, ‘three strikes' would have little impact on the size of prison populations.”
              • Winter 1992: “The Supreme Court will now likely have a black justice among the majority when it votes to overturn Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the 1978 decision upholding affirmative action at public institutions.”
                • Spring 1991: “If, as seems likely, the Supreme Court continues to erode and perhaps ultimately reverse Roe v. Wade.” (Depends on your definition of “ultimately.”)