If you’re addicted to C-SPAN, you witnessed two meltdowns involving the failure of the $867 billion farm bill in the U.S. House last week.
The larger one was a revolt by the most conservative of House Republicans, members of the Freedom Caucus, who were ticked off by Speaker Paul Ryan’s refusal to green-light debate of an immigration measure they champion.
The farm bill became a target for the discontented. On Friday, many Freedom Caucus members allied themselves with Democrats who were uniformly angered by increased work requirements contained in the bill. The combined weight sank the bill, and Ryan’s final months as speaker will now become even more uncomfortable.
But it was a second meltdown two days earlier that really caught my attention. This was the primal scream of a Democratic member of Congress from Georgia who had just spent five years playing ball with Republicans, trying to forge a bipartisan deal for a good cause — only to see his efforts turn to ash.
“Let me make it clear at the very beginning that this is a racist farm bill,” U.S. Rep. David Scott of Atlanta coolly began last Wednesday. His composure wouldn’t last. By the time the 72-year-old Scott limped away with his cane, he was in tears.
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House Democrats across the board viewed the increased work requirements in the farm bill as a racially tinged effort to slice recipients from the federal food stamp program – a move backed by the White House and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
And that was indeed an issue for Scott, but it wasn’t the point of his three-minute jeremiad. History was.
The farm bill is passed by Congress every five years. Price supports for various crops are a major part of it. So is the food stamp program, now under the acronym of SNAP. But federal spending on universities is contained in the measure, too – a practice that goes back more than 150 years.
In the 1860s, in the midst of the Civil War, Congress established a series of farm-oriented land grant colleges across the country. The program was extended to Confederate states as they rejoined the union.
By 1890, there developed recognition that Jim Crow was locking freed slaves and their descendants out of these institutions, particularly in the South. Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared “separate but equal” to be a constitutionally legitimate policy, was only six years away. Congress created a second round of 19 land grant colleges — this time specifically for black Americans.
This is how Fort Valley State was created. And Florida A&M University — Scott’s alma mater. But the 1890 land grant colleges have never enjoyed the same level of funding as those in the first wave. Scott sought a small fix.
The Atlanta congressman carefully built a coalition — Republican allies included Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Mia Love of Utah. Presidents of 19 historically black colleges and universities from around the country were flown in to give testimony.
The result was House Resolution 51, a measure that would give $1 million a year in scholarship money, over five years, to the 19 black institutions. The price tag: $95 million.
Scott is the ranking member the House Agriculture subcommittee that oversees commodity exchanges and associated financial issues. (Scott has a master’s degree from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania. Donald Trump earned a bachelor’s degree from the same school a year earlier, in 1968.)
Which is to say that Scott knew enough to identify a funding source for his scholarship program: The Commodity Credit Corporation, a government-run entity.
The congressman also paid heavy personal dues, sometimes raising the eyebrows of his Democratic colleagues.
Last year, at the confirmation hearing for Sonny Perdue as secretary of agriculture, Senate Democrats were gunning for him. He had, after all, ascended to the governorship of Georgia in large part on resentment over the hauling down of the ’56 state flag and its dominant Confederate battle emblem.
But when Perdue showed up, Scott was at the side of his former state Senate colleague. “It took a lot for me to step across there,” Scott would tell me later. “When he called, I didn’t hesitate. I went over there and I spoke for him.”
Scott thought he had Perdue’s support for his scholarship effort.
“It’s all about relationships. But relationships are a two-way street,” Scott said. “I crossed over there, man. I’ve taken brickbats for them. And every time I would ask them, ‘Is the money there?’”
And every time, he was assured that the money was there. And it was, until it wasn’t. Which brings us back to last Wednesday and Scott’s trip to the well. Scott’s HR 51 had been wrapped into the farm bill. But without the funding mechanism.
“They took the money out,” Scott said — shouting now. “Just like they did in the 1890s. Black people have suffered too long, and we need to put a stop to it.
“Every black man does not necessarily want to play football or basketball. They want to be scientists. They want to be the future,” he said.
Upon Scott’s departure from the well, U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, stood to say that his Georgia colleague was mistaken. “There was no money taken out of the bill because there was never any money in the program,” Conaway said.
Scott wouldn’t let him have the last word. In the C-SPAN recording, you can hear the Atlanta congressman shouting off-camera: “You took it out. You know.”
That was Wednesday. On Monday, Scott was still fuming.
“A scholarship is money. It ain’t words. This is so — not only racist, but deceitful. It is demeaning,” he said. “What makes this so painful is they know better. They would never put together a mandate in law for a five-year scholarship program at the University of Georgia or the University of Alabama or University of Florida — without the money being in there. But they’ll do it for Florida A&M, Fort Valley. They’ll do it for Tuskegee.”
Part of the urgency in Scott’s voice can be traced to the fact that the farm bill is an opportunity that comes only once every five years. If he doesn’t get his scholarship program now, it is possible that Scott will be pushing 77 before another opportunity comes around to get the job done.
There now is talk that the House could take up the farm bill again in mid June. But as of Monday, Scott said he would be carrying this year’s fight to the Senate. He said he has already spoken to David Perdue of Georgia, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee — and Sonny Perdue’s cousin.
“He said he would help,” Scott said. I followed up with a note to Perdue’s press office.
“I can confirm that Senator Perdue and Congressman Scott have spoken about this issue,” Perdue’s spokeswoman wrote back.
But did Senator Perdue offer to help? I pressed.
“I can confirm that they talked,” she replied.