It’s good food and not fine words that keeps me alive.

Moliere[1]

Our text for today is from Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (aka Moliere), a 17th Century French dramatist. He was quite famous in his day, known for a sharp wit and a keen eye for hypocrisy, especially as practiced by the wealthy.  Some (principally the aforementioned wealthy) thought he went too far, and complained about his excessive “realism and irreverence.”[2] But today he’s considered “one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature.”[3] He died in 1673 due to complications from pulmonary tuberculosis.

Why is he relevant today? Why wouldn’t he be? Just take a look at the current foofaraw[4] over Government finances. The Republicans are threatening to shut down the Government because they don’t like the Affordable Care Act, a statute Congress passed and the President signed a couple of years ago. The Republicans never had a majority in either House to oppose it, so they tried to stop the legislation in the Senate with procedural maneuvers that ultimately failed. So the Republicans, or at least the really conservative ones, have been having a fit ever since.

Next they moved to the courts, challenging the law on Constitutional grounds.  That failed as well; the Supreme Court rejected their pet theories and upheld the legislation. Then they made the Affordable Care Act a centerpiece in the last Presidential Election, and lost yet again. So now they’ve decided to stop the new law from being implemented. How? Well, by saying that they won’t give the Government any money at all for next year, unless the Democrats agree to drop all funding for the Act. For the Government, “next year” starts on October 1.

How can they do that? Well, Appropriations Acts, which fund the Government, are laws. The House and the Senate can pass laws only if they agree on them. Republicans don’t have the votes in the Senate to pass (or repeal) anything, but today they do control the House of Representatives; so they can block new funding for the Government simply by not agreeing to any Appropriations Act. They intend to do that until the Senate capitulates on healthcare, i.e., agrees to not fund the new law.

How is this fair? Does it really make sense to cut off all funding starting October 1 for most Government activities simply because Republicans lost an argument a couple of years ago about how much healthcare the Government should subsidize? To send Government workers home without pay, to let others go to work but tell them they might not be paid, to default on contract payments, and so forth? And if the tactic works, what’s next? What new targets will the Right pick?

It’s not like the funding issue comes up only once a year. None of the current proposals in the House and Senate look like they will last that long. So, once the Affordable Care Act is shut down, the Right can move on to its next target. How about Medicare or Veterans’ Benefits? Will they say next time, cut those back or we’ll cut off funds for everything and make the Government go home?

I don’t know what the Republican Party thinks, but I’ll just bet that there are folks back in the RNC woodwork, and perhaps in the media, who would like to do just that. Look at what the House Republicans did to food stamps.[5] A week ago last Thursday they crammed through a plan to cut food stamps by $39 billion during the next decade. The measure was not bipartisan.  No Democrat voted for it. But the opposition was bipartisan in a sense. Fifteen Republicans joined the Democrats in opposing the Republican bill.

The cut, by the way, was over 8 times the amount proposed by the Senate earlier this year. Reportedly House Democrats opposed the measure because they thought it would “erode a key safety net depended upon by families with children, seniors, veterans and people looking for work.”[6] House Republicans, on the other hand, thought they were doing the right thing. All they wanted was to tighten up requirements so that people didn’t “game” the system.

Well, that might sound reasonable, but the underlying rationale is less so. Republicans don’t like food stamps. In the words of Senator Jeff Sessions, they just don’t make economic sense. “Why don’t we provide everybody’s clothes, shoes? When you take money from the economy or borrow it as we’re doing today to provide food stamps for somebody, you don’t get a net gain to the economy.”[7] People need to be more self-reliant.

That’s an interesting notion, isn’t it? The Government shouldn’t feed the hungry because there’s no economic benefit to it. Let the hungry feed themselves. What would Moliere say about that?  Well, he might make the obvious point, that if he had food, he would feed himself, but since he doesn’t, he needs help. And he can’t eat economic theory. “It’s good food and not fine words that keeps me alive.”

But Moliere is presumptuous. At some level he assumes he has a right to live, and that others should help if he’s in great difficulty. And in this country, at least, that’s a reasonable assumption. After all, our Founders recognized that God had given us each an “unalienable” right to life.[8] They didn’t say we lose the right if we can’t prove our worth to the economy.

So at the end of the day, that’s why our Government gets involved in a lot of life-saving operations, in food assistance, disaster relief, emergency rescues, etc. and, of course, in health care. Life is important. Perhaps only the wealthy think money is more important than life, or at least other peoples’ lives.

[News Flash: The Washington Post reports that House Republicans now propose to delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act for one year, rather than eternally. But once again, if the Senate doesn’t agree, the Government will go into shut-down mode on October 1[9]. Why would anyone want to shut down the whole Government just to get a one-year delay in implementing the new statute? It seems disproportionate to me.]


[1] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition) (Oxford, 2004) (hereafter cited as ODQ at __) at Moliere p. 541, n. 18. He also said: “One should eat to live, and not live to eat.” See ODQ at Moliere, p. 541, n. 10.

[2] Wikipedia has a good piece on Moliere. You can find it by searching “Moliere” on the website, or by clicking here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moli%C3%A8re You can get his works online from Project Gutenberg, at http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/m#a791

[3] The quote’s from the Wikipedia article. Wikipedia’s references are given at note 1 to that article.

[4] Strictly speaking a foofaraw is a great fuss over a trivial matter. These budget issues are not trivial, so I’m probably misusing the term. On the other hand, a foofaraw is also a “showy extravagance,” and we’re certainly getting that from the media.

[5] See USA Today, Doering & Singer, House passes GOP plan for $39B cut in food stamps (September 19, 2013) (hereafter Doering & Singer) at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/09/19/house-gop-food-stamp-cuts/2839343/

[6] See Doering & Singer.

[7] That’s from Senator Jeff Sessions (Republican, Alabama) on Hannity. See Fox News, Hannity, Boomtown 2, The Business of Food Stamps (panel, April 05, 2013, transcript September 26, 2013) at http://www.foxnews.com/on-air/hannity/2013/04/08/boomtown-2-business-food-stamps

[8] See Declaration of Independence, at paragraph 2. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…” You can get a reliable transcription of the text of the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives. Just go to: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html

[9] See The Washington Post, Montgomery, Kane & Helderman, House pushes U.S. to the edge of a shutdown (September 30, 2013) at http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/house-republicans-to-propose-one-year-delay-in-obamacare/2013/09/28/1e884de6-2859-11e3-9256-41f018d21b49_story.html?wpisrc=al_national

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