What Harry Reid Learned at the Grocery Store

Don't balance the budget on the backs of people who are hungry.

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The speaker is Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic Leader. The place is the Senate floor. The time is last week, after the House Republicans committed the latest outrage, voting to cut the food stamp program, always part of the farm bill – until now. Hear Harry speak on one of life's simple pleasures: 

One of my favorite things that I really like to do in Nevada and here, in Washington, is go grocery shopping. It's such a diversion for me. I love going grocery shopping to look around, buy the things. Landra and I are without our children and our grandchildren. We live alone. But we still buy food. And I enjoy that so very, very much.

So I know, have a good idea how much $4 will buy or $4.50 to be specific. That's not money to buy ... a pound of hamburger. They have different grades of hamburger. They have the expensive kind, not so expensive and the cheaper kind. Even the cheaper kind you couldn't buy a pound of that most of the time. A gallon of milk (is) about $4. You couldn't buy them both the same day. It's possible to (make) important reforms in both the farm and food stamp programs without balancing the budget on the backs of people who are hungry.

This is one of the most humane speeches I've ever come across in the Senate. It may be a first. Seldom does a majority leader, who holds so much power in his hands, seem so humble and down to earth. More often than not, the voices in that clubby chamber drone on longer than necessary, with nobody listening, trying to summon the spirit of Daniel Webster.  

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The straightforward Reid put his finger on the universal importance of going out to find – or forage – food for yourself and your family. Whether you are man, woman or child, that is an elemental need and the ancient way that we became civilized, by sitting down to break bread, cook meat or gather berries together.

In times of trouble, the government should be your friend trying to help you, not an enemy scheming to take away what little you have. That is not "conservative." That's firebrand radical. Federal food stamp assistance goes back to the Great Depression, for heaven's sake, when government lent a helping hand.  

Harold Ickes, an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, famously observed the obvious: "People need to eat three times a day." A blunt statement with sense and compassion between the lines. 

I hope everyone knows by now the food stamp troublemakers – the same ones who threaten to shut down the government – are about 40 House Republicans, most of them tea party people who were elected in 2010. They promised to create chaos here in Washington – and then they spit out "D.C." They ran for office on a platform of practically burning the building down, or least closing the Capitol, the citadel of our democracy.

They have no knowledge of Congress and no interest in its traditions. They respect neither seniority nor authority. They don't even listen to their own Speaker, John Boehner. Poor country club guy from small-town Ohio, Boehner can't control these angry white people who showed up with everything but their pitchforks. Sorry, but they are an intolerable faction and this latest act is unconscionable. In fact, let's call it what it is: un-American.  

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Paul Krugman, the op-ed columnist for The New York Times, spoke out strongly against "the war on food stamps." He quoted the GOP golden boy, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, disparaging food and nutrition assistance as "a hammock" instead of a safety net. Ryan is a sharp-tongued instigator of all the madness – in both senses of the word. I have news for Krugman: These people, except for Ryan, are not likely to read The New York Times . They are anti-establishment, anti-intellectual, anti-government, anti-immigrant. If anything, they would take take criticism from The Times as a compliment.

The political party they resemble most is the one Abraham Lincoln despised, the defiant Know-Nothings, back before the Civil War. I think that's why President Obama can't wrap his mind around how much damage they plan to do to his presidency and the government and the American people. He's a man of reason living in unreasonable times. He has the milk of human kindness in his bones; but his political foes have no mercy on the less fortunate among us, not even on children. They would take food out of the mouths of babes.  

Reid said it best in his un-common sense statement: Don't balance the budget on the backs of people who are hungry. Amen.