By Mike Lillis - 11/13/11 09:00 PM EST
House Democrats charged Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) this week with talking out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to congressional efforts to fight poverty.
The lawmakers contend Boehner's recent remarks in support of low-income safety-net programs are hypocritical in the face of the GOP's hopes to slash funding for the same initiatives.
"This Congress has continuously attacked poor people," Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) told The Hill. "Republicans believe you can cut programs that help poor people and there will be no political consequences."
"No one here in this Congress, Democrat or Republican, wants to do anything about putting holes in the safety net for Americans," Boehner said Sunday on ABC's "This Week with Christiane Amanpour."
"There are Americans who are poor, and I think it's the responsibility of the rest of us to ensure that they have food in their stomachs and they have a roof over their head."
Democrats, however, contend the Speaker simply hasn't lived up to those claims. The lawmakers note that Republicans have spent most of the year pushing budget bills that would slash low-income benefits like Medicaid, food stamps, heating assistance and housing subsidies – cuts that were all backed by Boehner.
McGovern said he "appreciates" Boehner's public endorsement of low-income assistance measures. But the suggestion that the Republicans are champions of those initiatives, he added, "rings a little bit hollow."
"They're trying to use compassionate words to disguise the fact that their policies are anything but compassionate," McGovern said.
"They don't need your words," he said of the poor, "they need your actions."
Rep. Barbara Lee (D) echoed that message. The California liberal said she was "very pleased" to hear Boehner's recent remarks. But she was quick to note that there's been no legislative evidence to back his claims.
"Just talking about it is one thing," Lee said. "But when you look at what they [Republicans] do, it's just outrageous."
Citing the federal holiday, a Boehner spokesman declined to comment Friday.
In bill after bill this year, GOP leaders have proposed steep cuts to the nation's safety-net programs, including those designed to fight hunger and homelessness. The Republicans’ 2012 budget proposal, for instance, would have cut $127 billion — almost 20 percent — from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), almost $800 billion from Medicaid and billions more from federal housing subsidies.
An analysis from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that almost two-thirds of the proposal's $4.5 trillion in savings targeted programs serving low-income Americans.
All but four Republicans supported the bill. Keeping with the Speaker's custom, Boehner did not cast a vote, but indicated his support in a floor speech where he characterized the budget as "worthy of the American people."
More recently, Republicans proposed a long list of cuts to low-income benefits as part of their proposal to slash spending by $61 billion in fiscal year 2011. That plan proposed a 63 percent cut – from $4.5 billion to $1.5 billion – in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which offer housing subsidies and other aid to low-income communities.
The 2011 continuing resolution also included a 50 percent cut ($100 million) in FEMA's Emergency Food and Shelter Program and a $747 million cut in WIC, a popular nutrition program for low-income women and children.
Boehner on Sunday rejected the notion that the Republican cuts would harm poor Americans. He told ABC that the best way to help low-income Americans is to improve the economy overall.
"John Kennedy said some 50 years ago, a rising tide lifts all boats," said Boehner, who grew up with 11 siblings in a small, blue-collar home in Cincinnati.
Republicans contend that federal overspending has encroached on the private sector's ability to grow and create jobs. GOP leaders argue that slashing spending and cutting taxes, particularly for the high-income earners, will ultimately improve the lives of everyone – effectively the trickle-down economic theory championed by Ronald Reagan.
"We can't have government debt that's snuffing out the future for our kids and grandkids," Boehner said.
The Democrats counter that federal spending – even if it adds to deficits in the short term – is vital to protect the early gains of the modest recovery. Steep cuts in this fragile economy, they warn, would only threaten the low-income Americans who suffered most from the recession.
"No one wants to rely on the safety net," Lee said. "People need help when they need help."
Lee was one of 13 Democrats who volunteered this month to eat on a food-stamp budget to highlight a program the lawmakers say is underfunded.
"You just can't eat healthy on $4.50 a day," she said.
Democrats aren't the only critics of the Republican's budget proposals this year. In May, as Boehner was preparing to deliver the commencement address at Catholic University in Washington, a group of faculty joined forces with a number of national Catholic figures to challenge the Speaker's policy priorities, which they said would hurt poor people.
"The budget he worked to pass in the House literally takes food from hungry children while enacting massive tax cuts for the wealthy," said Vincent Miller, head of Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton. "These actions are antithetical to Catholic doctrine."
The debate arrives as the budget supercommittee slogs toward its goal of cutting deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade.
A number of Democrats fear the supercommittee will target the poor disproportionately, particularly if they shoot for a grand bargain far exceeding $1.2 trillion.
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed [and] lighting candles in church, but I worry that the social safety net will be decimated by the recommendations of the supercommittee," McGovern said. "They [the poor] are just holding on by their fingernails. They're the ones who need government the most."