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Protecting the Poor: The Fight for the Senate Nutrition Committee

By Matthew D. Slater

Recently a resolution, Senate Res. 264, was introduced in the U.S. Senate to extend the life of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs for two years past its current expiration date of December 31, 1977. Tomorrow the Rules Committee will vote on the resolution, after which it will (one hopes) go to the Senate floor for approval. Inasmuch as select committees generally need to be reauthorized periodically, this seems a trivial development. However, this past February the Senate and the leaders of the Nutrition Committee committed themselves to folding the Select Committee into the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. It is surprising, then, that any serious effort is being made now to revive the Nutrition Committee. Yet it is not at all surprising when one realizes that the February decision to abolish the Select Committee was a case of the Senate cutting off its nose to spite its face, one of the biggest mistakes it made this year, and most critically, a gross injustice to the poor people of this country made in the interests of "organizational efficiency."

The decision to abolish the committee was a part of reorganization of the whole Senate committee system. The reorganization plan, embodied in S. Res. 4, was the outcome of two years of research by the Temporary Select Committee on Committees chaired by Adlai Stevenson III (D.-III.). The resolution took effect February 4. The thrust of the plan was to consolidate and rationalize an overgrown system which had last been reorganized some 30 years before. In addition, there was general agreement that before 1977 senators were spread too thin over the mass of committees and subcommittees and thus could not effectively serve on any of them. For example, the average Senator served on nearly 20 committees and subcommittees, one actually had 31 different assignments.

Stevenson's method of attack was, not surprisingly, two-fronted. First, he proposed to consolidate committees along functional lines. This meant redefining the jurisdictions of committees and eliminating some special, select, and joint committees. Generally it was a cut and paste job aimed at pulling together into 15 major standing committees the major substantive issues of the nation. Many of the jurisdictional assignments made since the last committee reorganization had been arbitrary. Second, Stevenson's bill as introduced would have limited each senator to membership on two standing and one select or special committee, and to only two subcommittees per standing committee.

Just after being introduced, the plan ran into opposition. The opposition grew with time. First, the chairmen of committees that were to be abolished, such as Small Business and Veterans Affairs, protested the loss of a voice in the Senate; leaders of interest groups that dealt with these committees echoed this complaint. Second, there was opposition to some of the jurisdictional changes, such as transferring international economic policy from Foreign Relations to Banking. Third, there were technical questions about whether the Senate could unilaterally abolish joint committees. Fourth, there was opposition to what some senators, including Barry Goldwater (R.-Ariz.), thought was artificial and irresponsible pressure backers were bringing to bear for quick passage.

Finally, there were more general objections to the method of reorganization. These fell along two lines. First, some issue areas are not clearly in only one committee's logical domain and this duplication of jurisdiction sometimes is beneficial. Second, liberals were concerned that the consolidation and limitation of subcommittee membership would reduce leadership opportunities for junior Democratic members, who tend to support liberal causes and hire liberal staff. Similarly, some Republicans questioned the political wisdom of limiting minority (Republican) staff representation just as they lost the White House.

By the time S. Res. 4 had passed through its first sieve, the Rules Committee, the opposition had made some changes. Among other things, the Veterans Affairs Committee was retained; international economic policy stayed in Foreign Relations; the number of subcommittees on which each committee member could serve was increased from two to three; and the Joint Economic Committee was saved from extinction.

Both the Nutrition Committee and the Special Committee on Aging, however, remained slated for abolition when S. Res. 4 reached the Senate floor. A comparison of the fates of the two committees is useful in understanding how poor people rate in the Senate. The rationale for getting rid of both was similar. Neither committee had legislative authority--that is, any legislation they might find desirable still had to pass through some other Senate committee before it could be considered on the floor. Backers of the reorganization effort reasoned that not only did this lead to a duplication of effort, but that once consolidated into a legislative committee these special committees could more effectively act upon their research findings.

This rationale ignored a critical fact.

Both of the committees are interdisciplinary and would have had to limit their scope if incorporated in any legislative committee. Indeed, this was ostensibly the point of having a Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs--to bridge the gap between the Agriculture Committee and the Labor and Public Welfare Committee. Forty percent of the members of Nutrition were to come from Agriculture, 40 per cent from Labor and Public Welfare, and 20 per cent from the Senate at large. Although this mix of disciplines was not built into the Aging Committee's structure, it clearly is part of its function. Some of the areas the Aging Committee has investigated recently include: Food Stamps and the Elderly (Agriculture has legislative jurisdiction over this area); the Impact of Rising Energy Costs on the Elderly (Interior); and Medicare and Medicaid Fraud (Finance).

Similar as the pro and con arguments were for both committees, only one survived the reorganization. The Special Committee on Aging was made a permanent Senate special committee by a unanimous vote on the Senate floor (a few Senators, however, abstained). Encouraged by this vote, Nutrition Committee Chairman George McGovern (D.-S. Dak.), Sens. Robert Dole (R.-Kan.), Hubert Humphrey (D.-Minn.), Henry Bellmon (R.-Okla.), Edward M. Kennedy '54 (D.-Mass.) and others fought to extend the Nutrition Committee on a year-by-year basis, as had been done in the past. Nutritions ranking minority member Charles Percy (R.-Ill.) made the impassioned plea:

I appeal to my distinguished colleagues to find some basis not to just say, "In the reorganization plan, what we are going to do is wash our hands of this problem [hunger and poverty]--by organization chart we will dump it over here, but in our hearts we know they are not going to do a thing with it."

That is not reorganization; that is shirking our responsibilities. I do not think that is justified by having a clean organization chart.

However, both the year-by-year extension and a final two-year extension were voted down. Yet a last ditch effort resulted in an extension of Nutrition's life through 1977; the extension had certain provisions: no staff positions could be filled as staff members left, and staff members would not be granted certain benefits accorded to staffs of other phased-out committees. It is indicative of the dedication of the staff members that none of those who had not previously planned to leave have left yet.

Although this outcome cannot be explained entirely by power group politics, a good deal can be. First, committees with large, powerful, organized constituencies--such as Aging and Veterans Affairs--were saved, in large part because of these groups' intensive lobbying for "their" committees. Second, the amended bill gave the political parties the pay-offs they wanted (assuming that some reorganization was politically necessary at the time). Specifically, the liberal Democrats got more opportunities for liberal leadership by increasing the numbers of subcommittes, and were allowed to keep the Joint Economic Committee (largely liberal in it's economic outlook); the Republicans obtained the option of naming one-third of the committee staff and of receiving some separate funds. Third, poor people still are not a potent enough political force really to affect Congressional action. If the retention of the Veterans, Aging, and Joint Economic Committees can be explained by the power of their respective groups, the loss of the Nutrition Committee can be explained by the fact that poor people still are not an organized voting bloc. It is ironic that those people and groups with the least independent influence on Congress are deemed least in need of a committee to listen to them, while those who will have great influence regardless of the committee structure or who is in office get special committees anyway.

It has been assumed up to this point that the Nutrition Committee has been a very constructive and productive force in the Congress; that it has been a place where poor people's needs were recognized and means to help them were developed; and that in representing the poor it did something that the Senate had failed to do previously and is still unwilling to do. The history of the committee proves these assumptions.

The roots of the Nutrition Committee lie in the "discovery" of widespread hunger in the United States in the mid-60s. A documentary called "Hunger in America," aired May 1968 on CBS-TV, shocked the American people. They were shocked to find that millions of people in the United States never got enough food to eat and that their government was doing very little to alleviate the problem. The documentary was aired after the publication of a report by the Citizens' board of Inquiry in Hunger and Malnutrition in the U.S.

The members of the board were in no way ready for what they found. In their words they "had been lulled into the comforting belief that at least the extremes of privation had been eliminated in the process of becoming the world's wealthiest nation." They presumed to be true Michael Harrington's statement in opening his book The Other America: "To be sure, the other America is not impoverished in the same sense as those poor nations where millions cling to hunger as a defense against starvation. This country has escaped such extremes." But Harrington was wrong.

In 1968 the Senate reacted to its own, as well as to the nation's, sense of shock; that year, George McGovern introduced S. Res. 281 to create a Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. On July 30, 1968, the resolution was brought to the Senate floor by Sen. Joseph Clark (D.-Pa.) from the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare with the committee's recommendation in favor of creating the Select Committee. The resolution passed by voice vote.

The resolution in many ways was an admission of failure from the Senate on the part of the Congress and the Administration--a failure "to banish starvation and want for necessities among desperately disadvantaged poor within our Nation." One of the obstacles noted was "division of responsibility and authority within Congress," i.e., whenever responsibility is unclearly divided it is avoided by all parties. What is implicit in the resolution and how it was handled was that the Agriculture Committee, which had legislative and oversight authority for federal food programs, had not done its job. This implicit fault was highlighted by the fact that the legislative committee that released S. Res. 281 was Labor and Public Welfare, not Agriculture, and by the fact that the subcommittee that investigated hunger in the summer of 1967 was from Labor and Public Welfare and not Agriculture.

Rather than more clearly defining responsibility for fighting hunger--which would have involved more finger-pointing than is usually allowed in the Senate--it was decided that a new committee, independent of any of the others, be created to fill the gap. This positive action showed the Senate recognized that nutrition policy is an integral part of food and agriculture policy as well as health and public welfare policy. This interdisciplinary approach has been a hallmark of the select committee since then.

The new committee was charged to report within 11 months to the appropriate legislative committees after studying "the food and other related basic needs among the people of the United States." The committee was asked to make "such recommendations as the Committee finds necessary to establish a coordinated program or programs which will assure every United States resident adequate food, medical assistance, and other related basic necessities of life and health." Clearly such a program has not yet been implemented. One might infer that Nutrition has not done its job and ought to pack up and go home. Unfortunately, the lofty goals set forth for the select committee have never truly been accepted by the entire Senate. Nutrition has done a great deal to improve the food situation since 1968; if the battle has been lost, the lack of commitment in the Agriculture Committee and the whole Senate to eliminating hunger and poverty has lost it.

Among the achievements directly or indirectly attributable to the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs are:

Food Stamps: The program is now reaching far more people than in 1968. One of the most important recommendations regarding food stamps in 1968, a proposal eliminating the requirement that participants buy their stamps, was not approved in Congress until this year. The poorest eligible participants are now able to take advantage of the program. The committee had been pushing for this for years and provided a continuing source of information and support on food stamp issues--information that was unavailable anywhere else in Congress. Another major improvement that developed over the years is standardized eligibility criteria and benefits. The committee is still working to facilitate participation by the rural poor, who often have difficulty travelling the great distances to welfare offices.

School Food Programs: In 1968 the bulk of school lunch programs were concentrated in suburban school districts. The suburban districts needed the programs less than poor ghetto and rural districts, but they had the money to set up the facilities. Since 1968, a good deal of money has been allocated nationally to establish food service facilities in the poorest school districts, so there is now a much greater potential for reaching the most needy children with free or reduced-price meals. (The remaining problem concerns the palatability of the food, a problem which Nutrition is now working on.) Also, since 1968 the School Breakfast Program has been established and the Special Milk Program expanded.

Maternal, Child, and Infant Nutrition: By establishing the Special Supplemental Food

Matthew D. Slater '78-3 worked as staff member on the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs from September, 1976 through August, 1977. Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Congress recognized the critical role of nutrition in the safe delivery and healthy development of children. WIC was established in 1972 on a pilot basis, and made a national program in 1975. (Humphrey and the committee created the WIC legislation.) Only after pressure by the committee and subsequent court decisions did the Department of Agriculture begin to implement the program properly; the program still does not nearly reach all potential recipients. Next year, WIC's authorization expires, and input by the Nutrition Committee will be critical to the future existence and growth of coverage of WIC.

Nutrition Education: Although one of the areas that Sen. Clark outlined for the select committee was the need for nutrition education, the committee was unable until this year to get any kind of meaningful nutrition education program through the Senate.

In addition to overseeing the areas sketched above--a full-time job in itself--the committee has much more to do in the future. First, there is continued follow-up on its series of hearings on Diet and Disease. In the course of these hearings the committee found that poor diet--both under- and over-consumption--contributes to six ot the ten leading fatal diseases in this country. As a first attack on this problem, the committee published in January of this year a report entitled Dietary Goals for the United States. It outlined recommendations for action by government, industry, and private citizens. Follow-up in this area will be critical in helping reduce the incidence of these diseases. (The nature of the recommendations make it probable that political factors would have prevented Agriculture from ever having published the report.)

The committee has long been an advocate of using good nutritional practices to improve health. One preventive health measure that the Committee has been fighting to get passed for over two years is the National Meals-on-Wheels Program. This program would fund non-profit organizations which provide one free hot meal a day to homebound elderly or disabled individuals who could not otherwise get a hot meal in their homes. So far the Subcommittee on Aging, which has jurisdiction, has refused to even hold hearings on the Meals-on-Wheels bill. Furthermore, the committee has been forced by politics to write the bill in a way which precludes it from reaching the neediest eligible participants. Preference for funding would go to organizations with volunteer labor. Such organizations are much more prevalent in middle- and upper-income areas, where people can afford to volunteer their time. In ghetto areas, few people have time to volunteer, and few suburbanites are willing to volunteer for ghetto work. Yet ghettos are the areas where needs for the program are greatest.

These are the sorts of problems that the committee has had throughout its lifetime. One shudders to think of what state this country would be in if the committee had never existed.

Needless to say, the committee is not perfect, nor are the programs it has helped to produce. Indeed, the programs are for the most part band-aid measures and are not long-run solutions to the country's income distribution problems. Unfortunately, right now such measures are the only game in town and the Select Committee on Nutrition is the best player we have. It is the only body in the Senate with a real commitment to improving the lot of poor people in this country. For those who do not feel this goal is important, the Litany of Hunger written by the Citizen's Board may cause a conversion:

That is the litany--heard wherever we went...joined by countless and faceless voices, heard by us and by others, and always the refrain is the same:

No food, no meat, no milk--and the children go to bed hungry. Sometimes they cry.

Sometimes I cry, too, but I guess with shame, not hunger. I urge you to send a telegram or mailgram to your senators (address: U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C. 20510), asking them to support S. Res. 264 and a two-year reauthorization of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. Please

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