On Sunday evening, April 4, 1993, Cong. Tony Hall (D-OH) sat down with his family for dinner. That was to be his last meal for “the indefinite future.” Starting the next day, Mr. Hall fasted, taking only water.
He was shocked when the House of Representatives let the House Select Committee on Hunger go out of existence. As Chairman, Hall has worked hard to raise the worldwide and U.S. tragedies of hunger to greater visibility and response. By fasting he is issuing a call to “summon a broad and creative response from all those who share my concern.” The “right to food” he calls the challenge. “Here in America,” he said in announcing his fast, “nearly 27 million Americans are on food stamps, and 20 million go to food banks — and many are the working poor and children. In the world, .35,000 people die from hunger-related causes every day, and about one billion people are malnourished. We need to comprehend the scope of this problem and work to do something about it.”
For politicians intensely interested in the demands of avaricious lobbyists and their campaign cash, Hall stands out as a beacon of moral concern. He called an his colleagues to fast with him so as to “reflect upon the real meaning of our work. How can we be genuine public servants if we do not put first the needs of the most vulnerable among us?”
So far, no one has joined Hall from the ranks of the House politicians. Most of them enjoy their comforts, their pay raises, dininc rooms and sumptuous meals at fancy restaurants where corporate lobbyists pick up the tab.
The House Select Committee on Hunger has a budget of well under $1 million a year. It has been called the “patron saint of lost causes,” for its crusading focus and networking efforts against hunger and famine.
On March 31, the House of Representatives terminated the Hunger Committee along with three other small Select Committees. These Committees cannot authorize or appropriate funds and cannot directly send legislation to the House floor. They are institutions which investigate, report and urge action. Historically, the Senate and House Hunger Committees have performed effectively and in some instances, as with the McGovern Committee on Nutrition, have revolutionized the nation’s attention to nutrition.
The Hunger Committee was set up in 1984 because the House Agriculture Committee was too preoccupied with agribusiness matters to tend to the spectre of mass hunger. Its abolition was part of what Hall calls “a cynical gimmick to create the illusion of cost savings while actually increasing the budgets of larger committees.”
Committees such as those on merchant marine, energy, commerce and minerals have powerful outside interests backing them. The tiniest committee of them all — Hunger is just an appeal to the politicians’ humanity. Its demise is a slander on the memory of the late Cong. Mickey Leland who was the founding chairman when he lost his life in an airplane crash in Africa while visiting famine areas.
“Something is wrong in the House of Representatives,” says Hall with understatement. “There is no focus and we have no priorities. It’s all oneup-manship, game-playing, and partisanship. Congress has become an uncaring institution — it has lost its conscience.”
It hasn’t lost its greed, however. House members took a $3500 cost of living raise this January and another consequent raise in their pension benefits. This at a time of a broke government, deep in deficit, that regularly turns its back on the people in favor of the privileged lobbies who prey on the U.S. Treasury.
“We have shown,” Hall observes, “that we place our own comfort and political security ahead of the well-being of our most vulnerable people.”
The national media will probably ignore Hall’s fast until he starts showing signs of emaciation. When Cesar Chavez fasted a few years ago to focus attention on the plight of migrant workers, one network told me they would be interested in doing a story only after the 35th day of the fast.
In its quest for the outermost tragic drama, the media, most of them, hardly notice what a mark of shame it is for their profession that people like Chavez and Hall have to endure a health-damaging fast to get their attention on obviously crucial and timely issues.
If you wish to communicate with Cong. Tony Hall, his office number is 202-225-6465. Or maybe you’d rather convey your thoughts to your Representative. The Congressional switchboard number is 202-225-3121.