SNAP Benefits, Work Requirements and West Virginia’s Hungry

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the centerpiece of the nation’s food security safety net. In FY 2016 SNAP benefits, formerly called food stamps, provided $500 million in nutrition assistance to low income West Virginians. On average, 358,000 West Virginians received benefits each month, roughly 20% of our population. These benefits amount to about $1.29 per meal. Yet our state government seems determined to cut recipients from the SNAP rolls.

Governor Justice recently signed a law making it more difficult for under-employed individuals to receive SNAP benefits.  This new law (HB 4001) was promoted by Republicans in the Legislature using the old “welfare Cadillac” myth about recipients taking advantage of public benefits. HB 4001 will have the effect of reducing the number of SNAP recipients among the vulnerable low-wage population.

Furthermore, the 2018 federal Farm Bill pending in Congress might do much the same. The U.S. House version of the Farm Bill, which would restrict current SNAP eligibility rules, barely squeaked by in the House on a vote of 213-211. House leadership had to rely entirely on Republican votes, the first farm bill in history to pass either chamber with only one party in support. The Senate, which passed its own version, is willing to be more generous than the House. SNAP eligibility is the most contentious issue facing House and Senate conferees.  The harsh House approach was favored by West Virginia Congressman Alex Mooney for the emptiest of reasons.

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice

To receive SNAP benefits an individual can have gross monthly income of no more than $1,307 and a family of four no more than $2,665. These figures are 130% of the federal poverty level. In addition, there are work requirements for eligibility, first imposed in 1996. An able-bodied adult without dependents (ABAWD) can only get SNAP benefits for three months in a three year period unless he or she meets the work requirements. This is called the time limit. An ABAWD must work at least 80 hours per month or participate in a qualifying training activity to avoid the time limit.

Federal law allows states to apply for a waiver of the time limit for ABAWD individuals in areas where it is more difficult to find work than in more prosperous areas of the country.  In West Virginia this has been done broadly on a county by county basis and many counties have routinely received waivers.  The waivers are largely responsible for the broad availability of SNAP benefits in the state. But HB 4001 will put a stop to these waivers. No West Virginia county will be allowed a waiver for any reason after October 1, 2022.

I am interested in eliminating fraud as much as the next person. But the waiver elimination in HB 4001 isn’t directed at fraud. Instead it is directed at people who are presumed to be lazy and unwilling to work, and who thereby take advantage of federal benefits. In this way HB 4001 creates a moral test of personal responsibility to receive assistance irrespective of need. It isn’t even a matter of saving West Virginia taxpayers money. SNAP benefits are entirely paid for by federal money, and every dollar in these benefits results in $1.80 in total economic activity in the state. So cutting people from SNAP benefits will actually hurt our economy.

Nevertheless, the lead sponsor of HB 4001, Del. Tom Fast (R-Fayette) told the Huntington Herald-Dispatch that the various features of the bill were designed to weed out “those who do not truly need assistance”:

I have consistently heard people just in conversation make complaints of seeing people purchase things with [a SNAP debit card] – luxury-type items – using the cards and then going out and getting in a luxury SUV. It is something I hear not just in my district but in areas all around the state.

This is certainly not what you would call empirical proof on which public policy should be made. Yet our Jefferson County Delegates — all Republican — didn’t seem to be bothered by the lack of proof. Delegates Paul Espinosa, Riley Moore and Jill Upson all voted in favor of HB 4001.

HB 4001 is just one more measure imposed by the conservative “personal responsibility” crowd without inquiring whether there might be some reasons other than lack of responsibility why a SNAP recipient might be unable to work twenty hours per week. Most of these people actually are working, but in jobs with low-pay, inconsistent schedules and unstable futures. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy adds that lack of access to transportation, undiagnosed mental illness, a criminal record from a past mistake, or living in an economically devastated part of the state are also plausible explanations. Unfortunately these explanations have also not been empirically validated.

But the Brookings Institution has looked at the question in a serious way in connection with the 2018 federal Farm Bill. Their research found that one in five adults in the ABAWD category switches between working more than 20 hours per week to a different employment status, such as working less than 20 hours per week, seeking employment, or being out of the labor force. For those in the labor force, work-related reasons – not being able to find work, being laid off, or working more than 15 hours for no pay at a family business or farm – were the most frequent explanations. Because only those working more than 20 hours per week every month would be eligible to retain their SNAP benefits, Brookings estimated that nearly 80% of ABAWD individuals would be exposed to potential SNAP benefit loss.

One other study came to a similar conclusion. In May 2016 the Department of Health and Human Resources did an experiment in the nine West Virginia counties with the lowest unemployment rates. The experiment explored what would happen if there were no possible waivers of the time limit — exactly the effect of HB 4001.  In the experiment ABAWD individuals strictly lost SNAP benefits unless they found 80 hours per month of employment or were participating in a work training or community service activity. While 5,417 people were cut from the SNAP rolls in the nine counties, DHHR reported that the experiment did not significantly improve employment figures for the ABAWD group. While the results of this experiment were available to the West Virginia Legislature before it adopted HB 4001, the results came to an inconvenient conclusion and were therefore ignored.

In a separate but predictable outcome during the experiment, demand for meal service at private soup kitchens increased 25% in Cabell, one of the nine pilot counties. This simply demonstrates that even though many of the hungry won’t be assisted by government benefits under HB 4001, they will still be hungry. The burden of feeding them will not disappear but rather will fall to private organizations.

Congressman Alex Mooney

Congressman Alex Mooney

Meanwhile the drama concerning the 2018 Farm Bill continues. The House version would impose increasing periods of disqualification each time an under-employed person failed to meet the work requirements. This feature and others are predicted to result in 400,000 households losing benefits. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2028 the House version would lower the SNAP caseload by about 1.2 million people.  Congressman Alex Mooney, who has probably never experienced real hunger in his life, said that the “conservative” SNAP reform provisions led to his support for the Farm Bill. In a spectacular non sequitur, Mooney said that “because farmers work long hours to produce food for the nation, so should program recipients.” His analysis on this, as on other matters, is about a quarter-inch deep.

It is certainly time that we stopped blaming the poor for their own misfortune. Hunger and food insecurity are not things people voluntarily choose. Moreover, cutting people off SNAP benefits harms the entire state because we would lose millions in federal benefit dollars that circulate in our economy. Regrettably, however, unsophisticated and uncharitable attitudes toward poverty and hunger dominate the majority party in Charleston and in Washington.

What Campaign Contributions Tell Us About Congressman Alex Mooney

The Federal Election Commission recently published the 2018 First Quarter campaign contribution filings by candidates for federal office. Among these was the filing of our own Congressman Alex Mooney. Mooney has been very successful in raising money, both for the primary just past (he was unopposed) and for the general election coming up in November. Running for Congress is expensive and anyone who hopes to be elected must raise money. But the sources of Mooney’s contributions for this election cycle raise substantial doubt that he will be much interested in the welfare of West Virginia and her citizens.

Congressman Mooney is one of the more conservative members of the House of Representatives. He is a member of the “Freedom Caucus” led by Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), which regularly confounds even moderate Republicans by blocking spending initiatives. By now the story of Mooney’s arrival in West Virginia has been told many times. Mooney served in the Maryland Senate from January 1999 to January 2011, where he represented a district that included Frederick. In 2010, Mooney was elected Chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, where he served as Chairman until early 2013. In that year he moved to Charles Town, West Virginia and began his run for Congress, to which he was elected for the first time in 2014. He filled the 2nd District seat vacated by Shelley Moore Capito. 

Don’t take my word for Congressman Mooney’s hostility to progressive policy. The website VoteSmart compiled ratings by various political interest groups for 2017-2018. Here are a few: Congressman Mooney was rated 0% by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, 0% by the Humane Society’s Legislative Fund, 0% on the NAACP Civil Rights Report Card, 0% on the National Education Association Report Card, and 0% on the League of Conservation Voters National Environmental Scorecard.

Congressman Mooney’s contributors tell us a lot about whose interests he will have in mind as an elected official, and who will have access to him.  As mentioned, statistics for the state of residence of individual contributors and for the amount of those contributions are available for the full election cycle to date.  His individual contributors are overwhelmingly not West Virginia residents.

For this election cycle so far, Congressman Mooney has raised a total of $527,582 from out-of-state contributors, 87.4% of his total individual contributions.  By contrast, his opponent Talley Sergent has raised a total $107,815 from out-of-state contributors, 55.2% of her individual contributors. Two things are clear from this. Congressman Mooney has raised much more money so far than Sergent and much more of his money comes from out-of-state contributors.

Think about this for a moment. Why would individual contributors from California or Colorado contribute so much cash to a candidate for the 2nd District Congressional race in West Virginia?  I’m willing to bet it is not because of their concern for the citizens of West Virginia.  Most of these contributors probably couldn’t find West Virginia on a map.

Most likely they contribute to Congressman Mooney because of his overall conservative credentials.  Perhaps he appeared on some list of ideologically pure Republican candidates. They want Mooney to win because they think he will satisfy their interests.  So if Congressman Mooney were a calculating man, he might occasionally be inclined to support ideologically conservative positions satisfactory to this contributor base, even when these positions conflict with what is best for West Virginia.

In several cases this appears to be exactly what Congressman Mooney has done. He was relentless in his efforts to repeal Obamacare, red meat for conservatives. In this process he voted for the American Health Care Act that would have rendered 175,000 West Virginians without health insurance.

In the environmental arena, Congressman Mooney celebrated President Trump’s roll-back of the Obama administration’s Stream Protection Rule, which was designed to blunt the harmful effects of mountaintop removal mining. The science on this is not in doubt — mountaintop removal poisons streams, kills fish and wildlife and pollutes drinking water. A ruined environment, fueled by Big Coal and conservative science-denial, directly harms our means of achieving prosperity and our enjoyment of life. But Congressman Mooney is camped out on the wrong side of this issue.

But perhaps the greater cause for worry is the source of Congressman Mooney’s other contributions — corporate PACs. In-house corporate PACs select candidates to support who will be most likely to vote in line with the corporation’s interests. They aren’t just giving away money for the good of the political process. And once elected if the candidate does not reliably vote on these issues, the contributions dry up. Corporate PACs that have contributed to Congressman Mooney will expect their lobbyists to have easy access to him, and that his is a vote they can count on.

So which corporations and industry groups think Congressman Mooney will be a reliable vote on issues that concern them? Here is a selection of many: The American Bankers Association, AT&T PAC, Duke Energy Corp. PAC, Chesapeake PAC, Coal PAC, KOCHPAC, Marathon Petroleum Corp. Employees PAC, NRA Political Victory Fund, and the Goldman Sachs Group PAC. Since these energy and financial PACs clearly think they have something to gain by contributing to Congressman Mooney, then I think they do as well. That is the problem.

Money in politics is a problem for both parties after the Citizens United decision, and Congressman Mooney is not the only politician who accepts corporate PAC money. But Sergent has come out in support of overturning Citizens United and is cooperating with the group End Citizens United. She has received a lone $1,000 campaign contribution from a friend out of his law firm’s PAC, but other than that she has received PAC money only from non-corporate, member-based PACs that have been approved by End Citizens United. These have come from groups such as The West Virginia Education Association and the Women Under Forty PAC.

Until we change our system for funding political campaigns we will have to live with the taint and skepticism that big money contributions create. The real risk, of course, is that these contributions will create more than just a public skepticism of the political process but instead actual pay-for-play corruption. It is my speculation that the lobbyists from the corporate PACs mentioned above have Congressman Mooney’s office on their speed-dial. Is it corrupt when a corporate lobbyist has better access than others to a Congressmen because of heavy contributions from a corporate PAC? I find it hard to escape this conclusion.

The Rich Benefit Bigly From Trump’s Tax Reform

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has added mightily to the already serious income and wealth inequality in America. Yet our state’s Republican representatives in Congress seem oblivious that most people in this state are poor relative to the rest of the country. They have boasted about what amounts to the crumbs on the table that middle and lower income West Virginians gain from this Act. For example, Rep. Alex Mooney, who represents much of the Panhandle in Congress, announced that he voted for “tax cuts for all West Virginians.” Always obsequious when it comes to the White House, Mooney said “President Donald Trump has been a true leader on delivering tax relief for all Americans and I am looking forward to continuing to work with him to create more jobs and to keep our economy growing.” There is no other way to put it — this emphasis on the illusory benefits enjoyed by the broad middle of our society is just willfully deceptive. The true winners under the TCJA are the rich, who will benefit at the expense of the rest of us.

Even the frequently touted tax reductions for lower and middle income taxpayers are not intended to be permanent. These will decline over the next eight years and ultimately expire. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito argued in the December 27, 2017, Spirit of Jefferson that the new law doubles the standard deduction to $24,000 for couples. But she failed to mention that this increase also expires in 2025. Furthermore, she didn’t even try to defend some of the law’s permanent features, which benefit the wealthy. These are the $1.5 trillion tax cuts for corporations, which will do nothing but increase the value of corporate stock in the hands of the wealthy, and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. The repeal of the mandate will generate $53 billion in annual savings by 2027, paying for about one-third (about 4.7 percentage points) of the bill’s 14-percentage-point permanent cut in the corporate rate. But it will leave millions more uninsured and raise premium rates for many others.

Here are three additional key ways in which the TCJA benefits the rich at the expense of the rest of us:

Distributing Tax Cuts Disproportionately to the Rich. The Tax Policy Center, a joint effort by the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, put it this way: “In general, higher income households receive larger average tax cuts as a percentage of after-tax income, with the largest cuts as a share of income going to taxpayers in the 95th to 99th percentiles of the income distribution.” This result will clearly play out in West Virginia.

Tax Benefits

Doubling the Estate Tax Exemption. The TCJA doubles the exemption from tax on estates valued from $11 million per couple to $22 million per couple. Doubling the exemption reduces the share of estates facing tax from 0.2 percent to 0.07 percent, leaving only 1,800 taxable estates nationwide. It is hard to understand why this tax change was so important — unless satisfying rich donors is considered. The estate tax rate is only 17%, far less than on ordinary income for this group of taxpayers. Still the tax exemption will be worth on average $4.4 million to those upper-end estates who will now be exempt. To put this in perspective, $4.4 million is about what it would cost to give 1,100 Pell grants to low income students.

Creating a Tax Break for “Pass-Through” Income. Although the corporate tax rate is reduced by 14 points, this benefit mainly applies to large corporations.  Many small corporations and limited liability entities account for business income by passing it through to the individual owner. Trust me on this, most of these business owners are not among the struggling taxpayers in this country. The corporate tax rate doesn’t apply to passed-through business income. Instead, the individual tax rate for that taxpayer would apply. It was not enough that the individual tax rates will be reduced, the TCJA also creates a special new tax benefit for pass-through business income. The final TCJA allows small business owners to deduct 20% of their passed-through business income.

I get it that current Republican ideology is interested in directing policy benefits to those in society they call the “makers,” while being far less concerned about everyone else whom they label the “takers.” The TCJA is a perfect example of how this works, even though Republican politicians continue to argue falsely that the beneficiaries of this law are the middle class. To some extent, the horse is out of the barn — this bad tax law passed warts and all. But we cannot let this go. At every opportunity in the run-up to the 2018 mid-term elections and then on to 2020, we need to keep this issue at the front of the debate.

Congressman Alex Mooney Fails Economics

President Trump recently cut a deal with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government for three months. Republican leadership had wanted a deal to fund the government for eighteen months so they would not have to revisit the issue before the 2018 mid-term elections. When the components of this deal reached the House for a vote, 90 Republicans voted against raising the debt ceiling, including Rep. Alex Mooney (WV 2d). Mooney issued a statement, saying “I voted against raising the debt limit because our national debt is already too high. West Virginian families have to balance their budgets each month and the federal government should do the same.” Really? Balance the federal budget each month? This statement shows that Mooney misunderstands the issues of public debt and deficit spending, or assumes that his constituents do. It is probably both.

The differences between the federal budget and a household budget are quite substantial. Generally, the spending side of a household budget is limited by the income of the wage earners in the family. If a household routinely spends more than this income, there will be trouble. But governments cannot be limited like this. Instead, they must respond to spending requirements that are unrelated to projected tax revenues for the year. Take, for example, the extraordinary spending needed to finance WW II. And, while a household buys consumables like clothing and restaurant dinners, government buys capital assets like roads, bridges and hospitals that benefit us for decades. When you consider the income side of budgets, governments have the power to raise new revenues through higher taxes and can actually print new money. Households have no such power. This wealth-creation power is what enables governments to borrow at much lower rates than households can.

When a government spends more than it brings in during a particular year, it has a deficit. In 2016, 44 of the top 50 world governments by budget size ran a deficit. The sum of all past deficits is the national debt. The national debt of a particular country can be compared with that of other countries, not by comparing the absolute amounts, but by comparing the ratio of debt to gross domestic product — the value of all goods and services produced during the year. Measured this way, by far the largest debtor nation is Japan. Its debt is over 2.5 times its GDP. The United States is 7th among developed nations. Our “national debt” is slightly higher than our GDP. But this is somewhat misleading because this “national debt” includes the debts of all states and localities as well as the federal debt. Considering only the federal debt, which is what Mooney was talking about, our debt to GDP ratio would be much lower.

Our national debt spikes during historical crises and then subsides as the economy is able to absorb the effects of the debt. According to the analysis of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, our national debt to GDP ratio is now high because of the Great Recession that began in 2008. The federal debt increased largely because falling incomes led to lower tax receipts. Also, unemployment and poverty rose, which increased the cost of social insurance programs such as Medicaid and unemployment insurance. Following the recession, a number of factors, including the implementation of the $840 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, caused the debt-to-GDP ratio to increase at a rapid pace.

An excessively high national debt is not a good thing. High public debt reduces the flexibility the government has during a recession to prop up the economy through increases in spending and tax cuts. And many economists believe that high public debt reduces the long-term growth potential of an economy. This is for two reasons. First, higher debt requires higher debt service, preempting a more productive governmental use of that money. Second, the increased sale of government bonds will absorb more of the available private investment funds, making them unavailable for corporate borrowing. Corporations borrow to invest in capital equipment, and other things that grow the economy.

But Mooney claims that our national debt is too high. Too high by what standard? The primary concern for holders of government debt is that the government will default. Excessive debt makes the risk of default higher. Measured by the reaction of U.S. debt holders, our debt is not “too high.” For that matter, neither is the debt of Japan, over twice as high as ours as measured against GDP. The debt paper of these two countries continues to be viewed as a safe haven in times of market turmoil.

Most Republican discourse about excessive debt ignores one other important fact about the U.S. national debt. Seventeen percent of the federal debt is held by the Federal Reserve Banks and other intergovernmental authorities. The interest paid on those debt instruments is ultimately returned to the Treasury.

Conservative politicians like Congressman Mooney are fond of attacking spending on social programs by arguing that this only increases our debt and that we are leaving a financial mess for our children to clean up. This argument is bogus. For the most part, we owe our national debt to ourselves. In his recent book What We Owe, IMF official Carlo Cottarelli points out that approximately 70% of the U.S. national debt is held by residents of the United States. These U.S. residents have lent money to the government. In the future, everyone will be taxed for the purpose of repaying the children of today’s Americans who have lent the money. All this money — the money spent by the government that was lent and the money that will repay these debts — has or will circulate in the U.S. economy.

While we should keep an eye on the level of our national debt, it is not now “too high” by any objective measure. The key to reducing debt is increasing the rate of economic growth in this country. If our rate of growth could once again reach 3% per year, nobody would be talking about the national debt. That is why the upcoming debate on tax reform is where the focus of Congress should be. Tax reform — not big tax cuts for the rich — has more potential for generating economic growth than anything else on the table.

Rep. Alex Mooney’s Feckless Vote on Healthcare

On May 4, 2017, the United States House of Representatives voted to pass the American Health Care Act (AHCA) by a narrow margin of 217 to 213, sending the bill to the Senate for deliberation. This Bill would repeal the majority of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) known as Obamacare, a promise made by Donald Trump and numerous Republican legislators during the 2016 campaign.

It is hard to describe in measured words the destructive impact the AHCA would have on West Virginia. Obamacare permitted the expansion of Medicaid benefits to large numbers of uninsured West Virginians. Because of this expansion we made great progress insuring low income, working adults, reducing the uninsured rate from 17% of the population to 5%. Repealing this feature of the law will cause 175,000 West Virginians to be uninsured once again.

One effect of the loss of health insurance is that people who need to see a doctor simply won’t. These people are at risk that their health status and earning capability will decline. Then there is opioid addiction, which has reached epidemic proportions in West Virginia. In 2016 approximately 20,000 people were treated for substance abuse disorder under the Medicaid expansion. This treatment will evaporate under AHCA. Some of the newly uninsured will get emergency treatment for illness and injury at hospitals and clinics. This is called uncompensated care.

When there is no insurance, who actually pays for uncompensated care? The people receiving care could pay out of their pockets. More likely, state and local governments or the hospitals and clinics themselves could be forced to absorb the cost. One projection estimates that West Virginia hospitals would be asked to provide $135 million more in uncompensated care annually.

Numerous national trade associations and interest groups operating in the healthcare space strongly opposed the AHCA. These included the AARP, The American Medical Association, The American Hospital Association, and Catholic Health Association of the United States. Even conservative groups such as Heritage Action and the Cato Institute opposed the AHCA.

In a series of three letters beginning in January 2017, two West Virginia Governors and the West Virginia Cabinet Secretary for Health and Human Services warned our Congressional delegation about the consequences of a repeal of Obamacare. On January 9, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin wrote to House majority leader Kevin McCarthy and the West Virginia delegation, noting that West Virginia’s population is one of the most rural and oldest in the nation, with poor health indicators. He said, “Federal funding must be maintained or West Virginia’s health care infrastructure will collapse.”

On February 15, Governor Jim Justice wrote a number of U.S Senators and sent copies to Rep. Mooney and the others in the West Virginia delegation. Justice said “Repeal of Medicaid expansion would eliminate up to $900 million from West Virginia’s healthcare economy annually” leading to the potential loss of 16,000 jobs.

None of these entreaties had the desired effect on Rep. Mooney — he voted in support of the AHCA. His official statement began as follows: “Today, I was proud to vote for the American Health Care Act. I pledged to voters in the Second District that I would vote to repeal and replace Obamacare and today I fulfilled that pledge.” His statement pointed to the “collapsing market” for health insurance and asserted that the free market would provide better options for people who can afford insurance, but offered not one word concerning the large swath of West Virginians who will be rendered uninsured or the impact of repeal on West Virginia’s economy.

Why would our Congressman vote for the AHCA in the face of unrebutted information that it would devastate the lives of many West Virginians and deal another blow to our economy? One answer is to take him at his word – he promised to do it and he was determined to keep his promise. While there is something to be said for keeping promises, the moral value of doing so here is petty in comparison to the moral imperative to protect hundreds of thousands of people who would lose healthcare coverage.

There is a less attractive explanation that may be closer to the truth. A vote in favor of the AHCA was demanded by President Trump and the House Republican hierarchy, and Rep. Mooney did not have the fibre to oppose them despite the cost to his constituents. More likely he was happy to join with them for ideological reasons despite the costs to his constituents.

As for being “proud” of his position on the AHCA, Rep. Mooney certainly has not acted like it. In March when he and Senator Joe Manchin met with constituents at a state Congressional reception in Washington, D.C., many of the attendees aggressively questioned Rep. Mooney about the AHCA. Mooney fled the room when he could no longer provide answers. Subsequently, he was quoted in the Martinsburg Journal claiming that these people were “professionally trained radicalists.” But in the comments submitted by readers of the Journal’s original March 11, 2017 article about the incident, Sara Le Rana said:

I was in attendance as an interested citizen. I WAS NOT paid or a “professionally trained radicalist.” I’m uncertain what that is. Mooney RAN, not walked, he RAN rather than stay and do his job. Manchin listened, encouraged the guests closer to him. Mooney refused to listen or stay to respond in a respectful manner . . . . The dude ran.

This evasive behavior on the part of Rep. Mooney has been typical of his lack of responsiveness, and that of his staff, in large part around the healthcare issue. West Virginians deserve better than this.

2018 cannot come soon enough.

Rep. Alex Mooney Ignores the Panhandle’s Economic Needs

Let’s face it. Panhandle voters did themselves no favor when they elected Alex Mooney as West Virginia’s 2nd District Congressman. Characteristics we’d like to see in a Congressman – independence of thought, sensitivity to constituent needs, flexibility in problem solving – appear to be lacking in Rep. Mooney. His actions and statements show him to be one dimensional. Whatever outrage President Trump proposes for the environment with the false promise of putting coal miners back to work is just fine by him.

For proof of this I invite anyone to review Rep. Mooney’s website for his public statements and news releases. Don’t expect to find any evidence of initiative in Congress meaningful to the Panhandle. Instead, a favorite Mooney posting is a “statement” lauding something President Trump has done and repeating tired Republican attacks on the Obama administration. Here is one issued on March 28, 2017:

Today, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order that rolls back devastating [Clean Power Plan] regulations on American energy production. . . . . This Executive Order is just one of the many ways President Trump is standing up for West Virginia energy production and I am proud to stand with him in this fight. For eight years, former President Barack Obama waged an all-out war on coal and West Virginia values. As unemployment skyrocketed and coal mines closed, President Obama and his left-wing supporters focused on executing on his promise to bankrupt the coal industry.

Earlier, Rep. Mooney celebrated President Trump’s roll-back of the Obama administration’s Stream Protection Rule, which was designed to blunt the harmful effects of mountaintop removal mining. Based on wildly inflated figures from the National Mining Association, Rep. Mooney claimed that the Rule would have cost 70,000 coal mining jobs. Pretty soon Rep. Mooney will have to come up with some ideas that actually move us forward, instead of ritually dismantling what was done during the previous administration. But don’t hold your breath. This may take a while.

Six of eight counties in the Eastern Panhandle are part of the 2nd District – Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, Hardy, Hampshire and Pendleton. According to Census Bureau estimates, the 2016 total population of these six counties was 231,766, making up 37% of the 2nd District. Simply from the standpoint of the total votes in the Panhandle, you would expect Rep. Mooney to pay some attention to our economic needs.

There is no coal mining in the Eastern Panhandle. Our economy is heavily weighted toward white-collar jobs in healthcare and government, tourism and agriculture. Our conservation and environmental interest groups are thriving. A ruined environment, fueled by Big Coal and science-denial, directly harms our means of achieving prosperity and our enjoyment of life. Rep. Mooney’s dogged support of the coal industry is completely out of touch with our needs. In fact, it is out of touch with the needs of the entire state. Coal mining jobs make up only a minor slice of West Virginia’s current employment. Counting generously, there are 20,000 miners employed in West Virginia out of total employment of 740,000.

Instead of legislation to improve our economic prosperity, Rep. Mooney seems more interested in right-wing social legislation. He has twice introduced a Bill called the Life at Conception Act (H.R. 816), and has introduced a resolution (H. Res. 514) imploring the states to permit individuals to disregard laws and regulations on the ground of their personal religious beliefs. In the 114th Congress none of the Bills introduced by Rep. Mooney became law.

Certainly, there is more to being an effective legislator than the number of your Bills that are passed. But Rep. Mooney was one of those Congressmen who wouldn’t meet his constituents in face-to-face town hall meetings to explain what he’s doing for us. No doubt he was afraid to hear the pent up anger in his District. There is still time in his current term for Rep. Mooney to demonstrate that he understands the Panhandle’s economic needs. But it is hard to be optimistic.

Rep. Alex Mooney Deals a Blow to West Virginia’s Mountain Streams

Rep. Alex Mooney (WV 2nd) is celebrating the demise of the Interior Department’s Stream Protection Rule. This Rule, made effective in the waning days of President Obama’s tenure, would have created a buffer zone between mountain streams and mine sites and would have protected drinking water in accordance with modern technology. The Rule would have mainly affected mining done by mountaintop removal where mining refuse is pushed into stream valleys. But Rep. Mooney and his Big Coal backers claim that the Rule would have killed over 70,000 jobs in the coal industry. Unfortunately, Rep. Mooney’s grasp of coal economics and employment numbers is feeble, perhaps influenced by his ideological impulse to dance on the grave of the Obama Administration.

The scientific evidence of the harm done by mountaintop removal with valley fills is unassailable. In January 2010, Science Magazine published an article detailing that harm, written and researched by twelve preeminent scientists including one from WVU. They found that burial of headwater streams by valley fills causes permanent loss of ecosystems. Stream biodiversity and water quality suffer. As they emerge from valley fills, mountain streams are saturated with sulfate, calcium, magnesium and other harmful ions. These persist even after mine-site reclamation. Groundwater samples from domestic supply wells have higher levels of mine-derived chemicals than well water from unmined areas. The article, written before Obama’s stream protection Rule, concludes

mine-related contaminants persist in streams well below valley fills, forests are destroyed, headwater streams are lost, and biological diversity is reduced; all of these demonstrate that [mountaintop removal with valley fill] causes significant environmental damage despite regulatory requirements to minimize impacts.

Balanced against this certain environmental harm is Rep. Mooney’s rather hysterical claim that huge numbers of West Virginia coal jobs would have been lost under the Rule. It should surprise no one that Rep. Mooney’s numbers come straight from the National Mining Association. That group’s analysis asserted that as many as 77,000 jobs might be lost nationwide under the worst scenario, but possibly far fewer under more likely scenarios. Those are not all West Virginia jobs, or even Appalachian jobs. And there is good reason to doubt the bona fides of NMA’s numbers because they do not take into account the reclamation and compliance jobs that would be created by the Rule.

Congress required the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to estimate the proposed Rule’s impact on employment, not just on coal jobs. In a document entitled SPR Myths vs, Facts, it debunks industry claims that between 40,000 and 77,000 jobs would be lost:

The final [Stream Protection Rule] will not have an adverse impact on jobs. The regulatory impact analysis (RIA) for the rule estimates overall that employment will show [an annual average] increase of 156 full time jobs. Where coal production is unprofitable under market conditions, jobs are predicted to decline by an average annual aggregate of 124 fulltime jobs. This will be more than offset by an average annual gain of 280 fulltime jobs needed to comply with the rule where mining remains profitable, such as additional jobs like heavy machine operators for materials placement and water sampling professionals. For purposes of comparison, the Energy Information Administration reports that total coal industry employment in 2015 was equal to 65,971, decreasing 12% from 2014.

In a February 22, 2017 opinion piece, the Morgan Messenger took Senators Capito and Manchin to task for claiming that rolling back the Rule would save state coal jobs. “They don’t do our state any favors by pretending to have turned back the loss of coal jobs,” the Messenger said, noting that coal jobs have been declining for years due to economic factors unrelated to environmental regulations. Rep. Mooney is guilty of the same and more. By accepting and further promoting the coal industry’s false narrative about a “war on coal” he delays the reckoning we in West Virginia must have about replacing coal jobs and severance revenues. He keeps us in the perpetual coal rut. The roll back of the Stream Protection Rule is no cause for him to celebrate.