House Republicans Cut Food Assistance For Low-Income Families While Protecting Azaleas

GOP Cuts Food Assistance For Low-Income Families While Protecting Azaleas

WASHINGTON -- If you're an azalea at the National Arboretum, you're in luck -- a Republican on the House Appropriations Committee is looking out for you. If you're a woman, infant or child, however, you're on your own.

Slipped into the FY 2012 agriculture appropriations bill that the House is expected to take up today is an unusual provision on page 13 requiring the National Arboretum to maintain a very specific portion of its azalea collection.

"The Committee directs the National Arboretum to maintain its National Boxwood Collection and the Glenn Dale Hillside portion of the Azalea Collection," reads the bill. "The Committee encourages the National Arboretum to work collaboratively with supporters of the National Arboretum to raise additional funds to ensure the long-term viability of these and other important collections."

While azaleas are being carefully tended to, the bill would cut $832 million from a program that provides food assistance to low-income mothers and children. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the reduction could result in as many as 475,000 people being turned away from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) if food prices continue to rise.

“Everyday people across the country leave their homes in search of work, only to return at the end of the day with more worries and less hope," said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), the agriculture subcommittee's ranking member. "At a time that people continue to struggle to make ends meet, Republicans want to cut funding to food programs that are helping put food on the tables of those most in need."

"Governing is about choices. It is clear where the House majority’s priorities lie -- and it is not with those of the American people," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a strong WIC advocate, in a statement. "These cuts are unconscionable and will not only hurt families trying to survive, but also hurt our economy."

"We understand that we have an obligation to get our fiscal house in order," added Farr. "And Democrats are ready to work with our friends across the aisle to make that happen, but not by discriminately targeting those most in need.”

Azalea upkeep isn't the only unusual measure in the bill:

Animal Welfare Act doesn’t Apply to Movie Sets: "APHIS is using vital animal welfare resources to regulate the pets of extras in filmed entertainment. While the Animal Welfare Act’s intent is to establish minimally acceptable standards in the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers, the law was not aimed at regulating companion animals used as extras in the background of movies and television productions. The Committee urges the agency to use the Secretary’s discretionary authority to seek alternative means of meeting its statutory mandate, including the option of issuing exemptions or master exhibitor licenses to these pet owners." [p. 19]

Extra Money For Wolf Control: "Wildlife Damage Management – The Committee provides $72,500,000 for Wildlife Damage Control, approximately $4 million above the President’s request. ... Special emphasis should be placed on those areas such as livestock protection...predator control, and other threats to agriculture industries.” [p. 20]

Less Money To Investigate Performance Enhancing Drugs: “The Committee is deeply troubled about the expenditure of scarce appropriated funds investigating alleged use of performance enhancing drugs. The Committee can discern no prudent interest for the FDA to investigate allegations that unapproved drugs may have been used outside the United States." [p. 54]

It's not clear who is responsible for the azalea provision, and the office of Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, did not return a request for comment.

National Arboretum Director Colien Hefferan was equally confused when contacted by The Huffington Post on Monday.

"We did not request the specific language in the bill, either through the Arboretum or the Department of Agriculture as a whole," she said. "I presume some stakeholders were eager to ensure that the azalea collection, as well as the boxwood collection, are protected at the Arboretum and probably requested through a congressman, but I don't really know the source. ... To my knowledge, there has not been an unfunded direction to the arboretum that's come in the appropriations bill previously."

Additionally, the Arboretum has already committed to preserving the azalea collection. In fact, there's a message on this issue on the front page of the institution's website.

Last year, The Washington Post reported that the financially strapped Arboretum was considering removing some of the beloved shrubs to deal with budget shortfalls, including the loss of private donations.

After public outcry and a $1 million endowment gift from an anonymous donor, the Arboretum announced in February that it was reversing its decision.

Several current and former members of Congress and staffers sit on the board of the Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA) and used to work or serve on the Appropriations Committee. They all told The Huffington Post that they were not responsible for the appropriations bill provision and had no idea who was.

"I am prohibited by law from having any contact with the House or Senate for 2 years -- ethics reform trumps the Bill of Rights -- so, no, that was not my request," emailed back former Utah senator Bob Bennett, commenting on the fact that he's not allowed to lobby Congress.

Former Missouri senator Kit Bond's office simply replied, "In response to your question, the answer is 'no.'"

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen's (D-N.J.) spokesman also said the congressman did not make the request.

Charles Flickner, a former staff director for the Appropriations Committee, said that as far as he could tell, no one on the FONA board requested the provision and it was likely inserted by staff or members who are simply azalea fans.

"From the email traffic, we're all quite astonished to see it, because I don't think anybody from the [FONA] government affairs committee, which I'm not a part of...requested it," said Flickner. "I do know that the staff, at least in the House, are well familiar with the issue. There are people who know about the arboretum and appreciate it."

This story was updated with response from Frelinghuysen.

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