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Symbolic gestures

What message is Rep. Steve Daines trying to send?

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Last week I got a letter from Montana's at-large Rep. Steve Daines, in which he thanked me for signing his petition opposing United States intervention in Syria. Lucky guess, congressman. I am against bombing Syria, but I did not sign any petition, for fear of leaking my address to Nigerian con artists and/or Steve Daines.

I do not hold the congressman's letter against him, though. He is in the business of sharing my opinion on as many issues as possible, and he has to get his message out. Just last week, he voted for two House bills that stand zero chance of becoming laws. One of them he even sponsored. They were symbolic legislation designed to send a message, but what message did he send?

The first of the two bills would cut $40 billion from SNAP—informally known as food stamps—over the next 10 years. It requires people between ages 18 and 50 without minor children to find jobs or enter work training programs to keep receiving benefits, and it limits those benefits to three months. In order to selectively please or enrage everyone, it also requires beneficiaries to undergo mandatory drug testing.

Shortly after the Census Bureau reported that 47 million Americans live in poverty—a number that approaches the highest level in 20 years217 members of the House voted to cut food stamps. The representative from Montana was one of them.

That's okay. The House bill has no chance of passing the Senate, and so Daines can send a strong message of fiscal responsibility and shrinking of the welfare state, without actually reducing the amount of food we buy for people without jobs. It was a symbolic gesture, and in making it he let his constituents know where he stands.

The next day, the House passed HR 1526, the cheerfully named Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act. Daines co-sponsored the bill, which mandates logging on 50 percent of available U.S. Forest Service land. He also offered two amendments shortly before the bill passed: one requiring the Forest Service to produce a one-page statement of timber revenues every year, and another prohibiting judges from issuing temporary injunctions against timber projects that are challenged in court.

I think I speak for all of us when I say, a whole page? Also, don't worry. The bill that the Wilderness Society described as a "radical measure [requiring] logging without laws" stands no chance. President Barack Obama promised to veto it before it even passed. Even Daines agreed that HB 1526 wouldn't make it through the Senate.

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"The Senate hasn't produced a forest initiative," he told the Missoulian. "The House just did today. The final product across the president's desk would likely be different."

So that was the week for Rep. Daines: Two pieces of theoretical legislation that expressed his desire to cut food stamps/trees but did not, strictly speaking, pertain to the future laws of the United States. They did, however, send a message from our man in Washington. But what was it?

According to Daines, the message is jobs. Citing the Congressional Budget Office, he estimated that the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act would create 5,000 jobs in Montana. That's good. It would also be a cash bonanza for logging companies, but presumably that is a mere byproduct of those 5,000 jobs.

Meanwhile, 129,000 Montanans receive SNAP assistance. In November, when the 2009 stimulus expires, their benefits will decrease by $13 million across the state. The House bill would significantly reduce funding and the number of Montanans who benefit from it, so in our hypothetical world of Daines' law, let's call that decrease $14 million.

According to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, every dollar spent on SNAP benefits generates about $1.84 in community spending. That means the imaginary law that Daines sent a message by supporting would leave nearly a $26 million hole in the Montana economy next year.

Most of it will come out of the pockets of people on food stamps. The good news is that 4 percent of them could maybe get timber jobs, if we passed Daines' mandatory logging bill.

The very good news is that neither of these bills will ever become law, and Daines only voted for them to send a message. But the message seems to be a lot more friendly to timber companies than to the people he was elected to represent.

It's a good idea to add jobs to the Montana economy, and it's a better idea for those jobs to come from within the state than from federal dollars. But as Daines signals his support for fiscal responsibility and the timber industry, he might consider how his policies affect our larger economy.

Improving lives in Montana is not as simple as applying our favorite broad economic and social principles. Cutting welfare and selling trees may not always solve our problems. Daines should reconsider his message, because one of these days he might have to make a law for real.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and lying at combatblog.net. His column appears every other week in the Independent.

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