May 1 1995

Limbaugh Out to Lunch in Budget Debate

“Today, my friends, we’re going to do everything the media accuses us of doing, that we never have done, but we’re going to do it,” Rush Limbaugh announced on his March 10 radio show. “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, today we’re going to give you marching orders, and today we will ask you to follow us in lock-step.”

Actually, Limbaugh urges his followers to take political action with some regularity (Extra!, 9-10/94). But what issue was so important that it would make Limbaugh claim that he was breaking his rule? The school lunch program.

“My friends,” Limbaugh declared,

for the last three weeks we have been barraged with the most heart-rending stories of cruel Republicans taking food from the mouths or children, with drastic decreases in school food lunch budgets. Throughout the past two weeks I have gone to the greatest of lengths to explain, to show with actual figures, that the Republicans plan to increase the spending in this program by 4.5 percent.

“What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is not politics as usual, not liberal journalism as usual,” Limbaugh warned. “What we have is a total rejection of responsibility, a total brainwashing equaled only by the worst days of Stalin, of Pravda, of Tass. This is nothing more than a provable conspiracy between the left and the press to spread disinformation about a Republican plan.”

Limbaugh urged his listeners to get on the phone to the media. “Just call your newspapers, call your local TV station, call the news magazines. Call ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Time, U.S. News, and all you say to them is ‘Stop lying about the school lunch program, thank you,’ and hang up.”

The dittoheads, given their marching orders, marched. CNN reported getting 300 calls, the San Jose Mercury News counted more than 100, USA Today said it received “hundreds,” all with the same message: “Stop lying about the school lunch program.”

The school lunch incident is classic Limbaugh: outraged, self-righteous, hyperbolic–and wrong. The Republican plan in question is the child nutrition block grant legislation approved by the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee. The legislation combines five separate nutrition programs–including the school lunch program–into one grant going to states. The dollar amount of the 1996 grant will be 2.5 percent more than the five programs cost in fiscal year 1995; since inflation is expected to run at 3.5 percent, this is a cut in the real purchasing power of the child nutrition programs–even without expected increases in school enrollments.

So where does Limbaugh’s 4.5 percent hike come from? The Republicans at the Economic and Educational Committee calculated that if states transferred money from the other four child nutrition programs, then they would be able to raise the school lunch program by that much. Three programs–the childcare food program, the summer food program and the school milk program–would each have to be slashed by 34 percent, a draconian cut that few states are likely to impose. A fourth program that would have to be reduced provides bulk food for school lunches, so a cut in this program would mean that children have less food to eat. (See “Clarifying the School Lunch Numbers,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 3/16/95.)

Nothing in the legislation mandates or even suggests that states should divide the block grant along these peculiar lines. The 4.5 percent increase is just a Republican fiction, apparently designed for just the purpose Limbaugh put it to: bashing Democrats and media for (accurately) reporting that Republicans were taking money away from school lunches.

Limbaugh was not the only one who made use of the Republican’s school lunch canard. “No one is talking about cutting the money for school lunches,” George Will insisted on This Week With David Brinkley (2/26/95). “The Republican plan increases the money for school lunches. It would increase 4.5 percent a year as opposed to 5.2 percent a year under the Democrats.”

Mona Charen (Capital Gang, 3/20/95) rebuked Clinton for charging the Republicans with cutting school lunches, when they actually “plan to increase funding by 4.5 percent…. As the saying goes, everyone is entitled to his opinion, but not to his own facts.”

“Nobody seemed to care about the truth,” editorialized the Indianapolis Star, owned by Dan Quayle’s family (3/9/95). “The grants actually would increase spending by 4.5 percent yearly.”

Newt Gingrich himself, interviewed by Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News (3/30/95), angrily denounced the “systematic disinformation campaign” on school lunches. “The fact is we raised school lunches 4.5 percent for five years,” the House speaker claimed. CBS‘s anchor did not correct him.

Only a few reporters bothered to correct what was indeed a systematic disinformation campaign by the Republicans and their allies in the media. Cox News Service‘s Andrew Mollison worked through the numbers in a March 14 dispatch, concluding that the 4.5 percent increase was “mythical.” Jill Lawrence also set the record straight in a March 16 AP news analysis.

But most news outlets ignored or abetted the Republican disinformation campaign. Were they cowed by Limbaugh’s allies and followers…or just too lazy to look up the real numbers?