Burr and Tillis should’ve shown some backbone and opposed the farm bill

U.S. Senator Thom Tillis introduces U.S. Senator Richard Burr during a Republican rally at the Central Marketing Warehouse on Friday, October 28, 2016 in Smithfield, N.C.
U.S. Senator Thom Tillis introduces U.S. Senator Richard Burr during a Republican rally at the Central Marketing Warehouse on Friday, October 28, 2016 in Smithfield, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The massive $867 billion farm bill passed the Senate by a lopsided 87-13 vote. Only a hardy band of 13 stalwart conservative Republicans voted no, but North Carolina Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr were not among them.

The Nutrition Program — popularly known as “food stamps” — accounts for some $670 billion of the farm bill total and has become a huge entitlement. The Senate rejected work requirement restrictions to the food stamp program, which were passed earlier by the House. The bill expands federal agricultural subsidies and provides permanent funding for a number of temporary programs.

As Americans come to grips with the reality of our $20 trillion national debt, we cannot help but wonder how we got here. A close look at passage of this farm bill provides useful – but discouraging – insights. There is no better snapshot of Congress’ chronic failure to control runaway spending than this sorry spectacle.

The urge to try to solve problems through government redistribution programs and the never-ending quest to secure their own re-elections seem to dictate Congress’ behavior. Since the onset of the Great Society’s War on Poverty in the mid-’60s, the U.S. has spent – liberals would contend “invested” – over $15 trillion in means-tested entitlement programs.

Between 1960 and 2010, federal entitlement spending increased from 19 percent to 43 percent of annual federal spending. These programs were designed not only to eliminate poverty but to eradicate the root causes of poverty.

The results? The overall poverty rate in 1966 stood at 14.7 percent, while in 2013 it stood at 14.5 percent — virtually unchanged. What a disastrous “investment.”

The government has massively redistributed income and, because this spending has been financed with deficits, shifted the burden of this redistribution to future generations – with no reduction in poverty.

As former U.S. Budget Director and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has written, “As a people, we have discovered the ability to vote ourselves largesse from the federal treasury in such vast quantities that we are destroying our own chances at prosperity.” What works to the short term re-election advantage of Congress will ultimately destroy our economy.

In economic terms, we are perched atop a time bomb. When interest rates inevitably rise to more normal, historical levels, the debt service burden will prove massive. Lest you think this is a partisan issue: Democrat Erskine Bowles has called the pending debt crisis “the most predictable crisis in American history.” Admiral Michael Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned, “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.”

Democrats have long since abandoned any pretense of fiscal restraint, but Republicans still give lip service to it. However, the farm bill vote shows just how hollow the GOP’s commitment is. Out of 51 Republican senators, only 13 showed up to oppose the bill.

With economic growth at the highest rate in decades, and unemployment at the lowest levels ever recorded, Congress still could not muster the votes to reduce food stamp entitlements and farm subsidies. If our representatives cannot show some backbone now, just wait until the next recession when they will undoubtedly ratchet spending even higher.

To bring all this home to North Carolina, we’re generally a state that responds pretty well to common sense conservatism. We know that when something “can’t go on forever, it won’t.” On this vote, four members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation (Budd, Foxx, Holding, and Meadows) voted no. But our two senators were sadly missing in action.

Garland S. Tucker III, retired chairman/CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation, is senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation.