For many years, much of Detroit’s northern suburbs were represented in Congress by Bill Broomfield, a gentle, self-effacing man who rose to become ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
He was unswervingly Republican, especially on domestic issues, voting against, for example, virtually every piece of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation.
But the thought of snubbing or being rude to any president of any party would have absolutely appalled him. Now nearly 92 and in fragile health, he served during the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and George H.W. Bush, and told me once, “I can honestly say I liked working with all the presidents.”
Had he still been in Congress, he would have shown up without a second thought last week, when President Obama came to Michigan State University to sign the long-stalled farm bill.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee was given credit by both parties for her diligent bipartisan effort to break a two-year impasse on the bill, which sets a framework for U.S. farm policy for a decade.
When it was finally passed, the bill, in fact, got more support from House Republicans than Democrats. Nevertheless, not a single one of the two dozen Republicans invited to the signing showed up.
Not Gov. Rick Snyder, not Michigan’s nine GOP members of Congress; not the Speaker of the House nor the chair of the House Agriculture Committee. When Air Force One landed in Lansing, Mayor Virg Bernero was the only official there to greet the President.
Shunning the president may have been both rude and stupid. Michigan twice gave President Obama — who can never run again — lopsided victories. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of voters are tired of partisan gridlock and nastiness.
Nevertheless, the President was snubbed while signing a bill whose economic importance is vast, both for the state and the nation.
“This is a huge bill,” Stabenow told me during an interview, the day before she accompanied the president to the bill signing at Michigan State — which, not coincidentally, is her alma mater.
“It includes 12 different titles, each of which could be a major piece of legislation in itself.” Though the loudest criticism of the final bill came from liberals upset with cuts to nutrition programs, she said the hardest bargaining had to do with reconciling the very different interests of different regions of the country.
The senator felt one of the bill’s greatest accomplishments was eliminating $5 billion a year in subsidies that were paid to farmers — some of whom are millionaires — whether they grew anything or not.
More of those were in the South than anywhere else, Stabenow said. Instead, the government is expanding its crop insurance program; more farmers than ever will be eligible for federal help to pay for crop insurance, meaning they only get paid if they take a loss. On balance, this will be a big net plus to her state, she said, where farms tend to be smaller, on average, and more diversified.
“This bill has Michigan written on every page,” she said.
However, the bill also cuts $8 billion from the budget for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs) previously known as food stamps. Sen. Stabenow said some press accounts had a distorted view of what actually happened.
“I drew a line in the sand and made it clear that there wouldn’t be any farm bill if it reduced or eliminated benefits for people” who were qualified to receive them. “No regular recipient is being cut at all.”
But she added, “I was willing to tackle legitimate issues of fraud and misuse.” These included an embarrassing loophole whereby winners of large lottery sums had continued to collect food assistance. Ending that was uncontroversial. The sticky point came with an estimated 800,000 people who were eligible because they had a home heating credit, but didn’t actually pay a utility bill at all.
Those folks, most of whom are in New York State, will see their SNAP benefits end. Had it been solely up to her, the senator might well have expanded SNAP benefits, rather than tightened them.
But Republicans control the House of Representatives, and they originally passed a bill that completely eliminated SNAP. “We’d have had no farm bill before I let that happen,” the senator said.
But what did happen was a farm bill signing at a ceremony which wasn’t attended by a single GOP official. That didn’t seem to be calculated to hurt Stabenow, who doesn’t have to run again for four years. My guess is that Republicans feared that merely seeming to be polite to the nation’s leader might provoke a Tea Party primary challenge.
I couldn’t help but contrast that to 10 years ago, when living in retirement, Bill Broomfield told me he was horrified when then-Vice President Dick Cheney swore at a Democratic Senator.
“This hurts us a lot,” he told me. “The idea that one party can do everything on these complicated issues doesn’t make sense.” That is, clearly, not the way many Republicans in Congress think today.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, an ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.