For Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern, the death Sunday of former Sen. Bob Dole marks the loss of not only a lawmaker who left a mark on a cause McGovern has made his own, but also of someone willing to work with an ideological opposite to do so.
McGovern often cites Dole, a conservative Kansas Republican, and Sen. George McGovern, a liberal South Dakota Democrat, as inspirations for his own focus on hunger. More than 40 years ago, Dole and McGovern worked together to pass legislation on food stamps, school lunches and food aid. McGovern was once an intern for the South Dakota senator, but the two aren't related.
“They understood that hungry kids is intolerable, that senior citizens who have to choose between food and medicine is unacceptable or that having veterans who served our country not knowing where their next meal is going to come from is something we should all be ashamed of,” McGovern, a co-chair of the House Hunger Caucus, said in an interview.
Now chairman of the House Rules Committee, McGovern is using the panel to draw attention to people still going hungry. He stayed on message throughout the pandemic with a black mask emblazoned with "End Hunger Now" as he held forums on food, nutrition and food insecurity. With no specific legislative jurisdiction, House Rules can insert itself into any jurisdiction.
“One of the great things about being chairman of the Rules Committee is that we can kind of do what the hell we want to do. We are not bound by the traditional jurisdictional constraints,” he said. “We have lots of programs and we manage hunger. We’re not solving it.”
Dole sent McGovern a letter in April praising him and Rules ranking member Tom Cole, R-Okla., for the committee’s focus on food issues.
“Our nation must keep making strides to end food insecurity in America. I appreciate your work to bring the topic of nutrition front and center in the United States Congress,” Dole wrote. Dole, 98, died on Sunday. His body will lie in state in the Capitol on Thursday. George McGovern died in 2012.
Dole endorsed Jim McGovern’s call, backed by all 25 House committee chairs — for a White House conference on food, nutrition and hunger, similar in scale to a 1969 summit President Richard Nixon held that produced federal programs and policies on hunger and poverty. He and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., have bipartisan legislation that would authorize the conference.
Now in his 13th term, McGovern, whose 2nd District spans central Massachusetts, also sits on the House Agriculture Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal government’s largest domestic food aid program for low-income people.
SNAP has been a flashpoint in recent farm bills as House Democrats and Republicans have differed on its size, scope and mission. Republicans want tighter eligibility standards and tougher work requirements to move more able-bodied people off the program and into the workforce, especially when jobs are plentiful. There were 41.7 million people enrolled in SNAP as of August, the most recent month for which data is available.
McGovern and other Democrats say adults in the SNAP program capable of working already do so, often in low-wage jobs. They also say the majority of people receiving assistance are children, the elderly and the disabled. Democrats argue it should be easier for low-income people to qualify for SNAP benefits.
McGovern said the political differences in Congress on poverty and hunger “have undercut efforts to effectively end” hunger. But he pushes on. He says his drive for a White House conference is not a call for a gabfest. He wants the gathering to generate proposals that will produce measurable action.
Focus on action
McGovern said testimony to the Rules Committee from witnesses and discussions with Cabinet members including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo will form a starting point for a White House summit. Government, faith-based institutions, schools and the private sector will have roles to play in turning proposals into reality, he added.
He credits Cole and other Rules Republicans for not denigrating poor people, something he said he often hears from other lawmakers.
“I’m grateful for that,” McGovern said.
Cole said the Rules Committee forums and roundtables on hunger “are very educational, and I try to make an effort to participate.”
“I know he wants to trigger a White House conference on it, and I think that’s a good thing for us to talk about,” said Cole.
He also said the Dole-McGovern relationship provides a working example for today's lawmakers.
“That’s an example that people need to see in times like these. Where we can work together, we do and we try to always keep it civil in the committee,” Cole said.
The Rules Committee has looked at hunger on college campuses, challenges for veterans, creative and effective approaches by state and local governments on hunger, food as medicine and changes to medical school curricula. It has also looked at changes that officials in U.S. territories say are needed to help current programs function effectively.
McGovern also has done site visits to Arizona, California, New York and Pennsylvania to talk with anti-hunger organizations, tribal communities and schools about their work on nutrition and hunger. He also said he has talked with people who have experienced food hardships about shortcomings in the current system and practical considerations for the government when it sets rules and guidelines.
In the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, McGovern said, he heard from people who live in housing without refrigerators or kitchens. He also has heard from people who feel stigmatized because they are poor.
“Handing somebody a box of fresh vegetables may not do it for the week for them because they need to be refrigerated,” he said.
McGovern is pushing as many buttons as he can and says he has made the pitch for a White House conference to Biden, Chief of Staff Ron Klain and Susan Rice, who leads the White House Domestic Policy Council. The lawmaker also has spoken to the Congressional Budget Office about scoring cost savings for proposals such as medically tailored meals designed to aid recovery and reduce hospitalizations.
He said the whole process is challenging, but added, “This project has been the most exciting thing I have worked on since coming to Congress."