It was, perhaps, an unfortunate choice of images. Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., held up a sign on the House floor Friday bearing the admonition “Don’t Feed the Alligators” - wise advice in his state, he said, because “if left in their natural state, alligators can take care of themselves.”
Welfare worked the same way, he explained, because “unnatural feeding and artificial care create dependency. Now people are not alligators,” he added, “but I submit that with our current handout, non-work welfare system we’ve upset the natural order.”
Enraged Democrats hissed: “Shame, shame, shame.”
In the final hours of the savagely partisan debate that ended with the passage of the Republican welfare-reform bill, the central aisle that divides the two parties appeared to have grown wider than the Grand Canyon. It seemed to separate different cultures, different philosophies and even different languages.
On one side was the Republican majority, mostly white, with a large contingent of earnest young newcomers who believe welfare is a costly, big-government disaster: “Democrats who have been protecting a broken and failed system … should be ashamed,” said freshman Rep. Michael Forbes, R-N.Y.
On the other side were the older, more-experienced Democrats, with a large minority contingent convinced that the GOP bill would destroy a social safety net constructed over decades: “The bill doesn’t just cut nutrition programs,” said Rep. William L. Clay, D-Mo., a 13-term veteran. “It decimates them.”
One side defended the taxpayer: “The welfare system has become corrupt and immoral,” said Rep. Robert S. Walker, R-Pa. “It is immoral to take money away from hardworking, middle-class Americans and give it to people who refuse to work.”
And the other side spoke for the disadvantaged: “I cannot think of anything more immoral than taking from the poor and giving to the rich,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
Mica compared welfare recipients to alligators, and the Democrats were appalled. But freshman Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., liked the analogy so much she used it again, but with a Rocky Mountain twist:
The behavior of wolves in captivity is “just like what happens with human beings,” she said. “When you take away their incentive, when you take away their freedom, when you take away their dignity, they have to be provided for.”
Off the floor, Rep. Jose E. Serrano, D-N.Y., whose South Bronx district is the poorest in the nation, tried to make sense of “a tough debate” filled with anger: “What she was trying to say was not horrible - that welfare creates dependency,” Serrano said. “But she didn’t know how to say it. She didn’t even know the words.”
Not knowing was a recurrent theme. House Republicans, Democrats said, didn’t know what it was like to be born poor and to suffer under an oppressive system where federal help was the only straw within grasping distance.
Maybe, said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., beaten within an inch of his life as a Freedom Rider during the civil-rights movement, it was an age thing: “You had clashing here,” Lewis said. “A lot of the younger people I see on the other side - they don’t know anything about hunger. We see the federal government as a sympathetic referee in a terrible environment.”
But maybe not knowing was a Democrat problem, “Too many people who have contributed to the tax system have stood in the checkout line and watched other people buy things with food stamps that they themselves could not afford,” said Walker, a longtime member of the GOP’s conservative brain trust. “This is about the difference between those who pay the taxes and those who run federal bureaucracies for a corrupt system.”
So the GOP decided to block-grant welfare and give it to the states. Maybe this was what created the chasm: “It’s the basic definition of the two parties,” said Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., a moderate.
“One (the Democrats) believes in a strong federal government with an equal party system,” he said. “The other (Republicans) believes in diffuse authority and local control. This is what we have tried to do.”
It was Gunderson who made one of the final peace overtures during the waning hours of debate, looking across the aisle as he spoke instead of performing, as most did, for their own partisan claque: “Can we start from the premise that nobody has a bad motive?” he asked.
We could not. “Those who come from the South or from urban centers have real reservations about giving the money (block grants) to states,” Lewis said. If the states had done their job in the past, there would have been no need for a welfare system in the first place.
“They can talk about Wisconsin, that’s one thing,” Lewis said. “But in Alabama, where I grew up, or in Georgia, we lived through states’ rights, and we’re concerned about it. We don’t put our eggs in the basket of states’ rights.”
In the end, the welfare-reform bill was another Republican triumph, roundly cheered by the winners: “For generations now we have seen this destructive welfare system stay in place … a system that is destructive of future self-esteem, destructive of family,” said Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla. “Now is the time to sweep this away.”
The losers had other fears. Serrano wondered “what’s going to happen this summer in my district” if people lose benefits. Lewis pondered the hostility of two parties who had spent a week talking past each other, and found nothing to like.
“In the eight years I’ve been here I haven’t ever seen anything like this,” Lewis said. “The glue that holds our country together - I think we’re starting to pull apart.”
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