Tea Partiers and farm subsidies

TEA PARTIERS AND FARM SUBSIDIES…. Stories like these aren’t exactly new, but the point still often seems lost on many mainstream political observers.

ABC News reported this week that “at least” 23 members of Congress have received taxpayer-financed farm subsidies, totaling more than $12 million, and some of the biggest beneficiaries have been far-right, anti-spending Republicans.

The biggest recipient was Rep. Stephen Fincher, a Republican from Frog Jump, Tenn.

While the self-described Tea Party patriot lists his occupation as “farmer” and “gospel singer” in the Congressional Directory, he doesn’t mention that his family has received more than $3 million in farm subsidies from 1995 to 2009, according to the Environmental Working Group.

When asked whether he would be willing to see all his subsidies go away, Fincher would not directly say he would no longer take any more subsidies.

Fincher’s obviously not the only one. Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R) of Missouri, a Tea Party favorite despite receiving $774,489 in agriculture aid, was asked whether she’d start voting against farm subsidies. She said “everything should be on the table,” but doesn’t want Congress to “pick on the farmers.”

I’ll put her down as a “maybe.”

Now, the point here isn’t just to point and laugh at the hypocrisy. That’s easy, but it’s been done. Rather, the point is to remind observers that assumptions about the GOP’s Tea Party base need revisions.

There was, for example, that much-discussed Politico piece from a couple of weeks ago, insisting that the Republican Party and its base have become “fanatically anti-spending … at the federal, state and local levels.” Tea Partiers, the article added, are obsessed with “cut, cut, cut,” and “taking a cleaver to government spending.”

It’s important that folks realize how incomplete this is, and the farm subsidies help drive the point home. These conservatives’ interest in spending cuts is exceedingly narrow. As Jon Chait explained recently, “[T]he evidence that Tea Party activists want to cut spending — at least actual spending programs — is sparse. Polls show that Tea Party supporters overwhelmingly oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The main thrust of Tea Party opinion is not the belief that Obama has spent too much money, but the belief that Obama has spent too much money on people unlike them.”

It’s precisely why one need look no further than a typical Tea Party rally to find all kinds of folks who love government spending, just so long as they’re the beneficiaries of taxpayer generosity.

Agricultural subsidies offer a terrific test — do those who want to cut spending also want to slash funds that go to them and people like them? So far, the test isn’t going well.