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  • Fed by Reform:Congressional Politics, Partisan Change, and the Food Stamp Program, 1961-1981
  • Sam Rosenfeld (bio)

In 1970, Democratic congressman Tom Foley of Washington State was the seventh ranking Democrat, and the highest-ranking northern one, on the House Agriculture Committee. Speaking to a reporter for the New York Times Magazine early that year, he described what he saw as "the problem with the committee" as it related to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food assistance programs falling under its jurisdiction. The conservative southern Democrats who ran the committee, along with their Republican counterparts, remained wedded to the notion that "if you do something to provide assistance to Americans who don't otherwise have the resources, this is going to strike a blow against initiative," Foley said. "What it essentially comes out to is viewing food as a spur for people to work. This is the most conservative committee in the House in terms of traditional attitudes toward welfare."1

Foley's diagnosis of his colleagues' outlook was hardly controversial, and applied to the counterpart committee in the Senate as well. Dominated by Cotton Belt Democrats and wheat-growing Republicans, both panels embodied in exaggerated form the key institutional attributes of Congress at the time: the dispersal of power among relatively autonomous committee chairmen and the disproportionate southern share of those chairmanships as a result of [End Page 474] seniority rules and the Democrats' long tenure in the majority. That such attributes correlated with conservative views on social policy was as unsurprising as it was consequential, for the Agriculture Committees had jurisdiction over a set of food programs for low-income Americans comprising an ever larger chunk of the USDA's budget when Foley made his comments to the Times Magazine. Food stamps, the biggest of these feeding programs by far, would soon be the federal government's second most widely used means-tested public assistance program.2 For supporters of the food stamp program inside and outside Congress who sought its expansion, then, committee jurisdiction posed a key predicament. Those with formal control over the policy regarded it with hostility while concerning themselves with the constituency politics of agricultural producers. In this sense, too, the Agriculture Committees reflected in acute form a broader congressional phenomenon, namely, the ability of southern Democratic chairmen to impose bottlenecks on legislation that liberals believed enjoyed majority Democratic support.

Despite the institutional difficulties that the food stamp program faced in Congress, however, it did in fact grow dramatically in the decade and a half following its establishment as a national program in 1964, reaching a monthly average of more than 21 million Americans by 1980.3 What accounted for the program's enactment and subsequent expansion in the 1960s and 1970s? And how did institutional dynamics shape both the substance of the policy and the strategies of food stamp advocates inside and outside Congress?

A twofold answer, detailed in the narrative below, corresponds to two roughly distinct periods of national public opinion and political momentum concerning the program—and during both periods, institutional reforms in Congress proved crucial. In the first period, food stamps enjoyed generally favorable public support and a distinctly unfavorable institutional environment given the negative power of key legislative gatekeepers. The program's enactment and early survival depended on instrumental log-rolls between farm bloc congressmen and their urban liberal colleagues, and advocates and congressional actors seeking the food stamp program's continued expansion took as their primary task the circumvention of those with formal committee jurisdiction over it. Tactics for overriding these chairmen's opposition included public mobilization, the creation of alternative institutional channels through which policy and legislative work could be sent, and, eventually, broad-ranging congressional reforms enacted by liberal Democrats during the first half of the 1970s. Those reforms curbed the power of committee chairmen in general and transformed the House Agriculture Committee in [End Page 475] particular, catapulting Tom Foley—a lonely liberal voice on the panel just five years earlier—to its chairmanship in 1975. A parallel development inaugurated the second period of food stamp politics: a potent mobilization against the program in the mid-1970s by conservatives in Congress and the...


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