Paul Begala: Should We Drug Test Congressmen?

Fincher, a Republican from Tennessee, has introduced legislation that would require states to randomly drug-test 20 percent of their welfare recipients. Universal Images Group via Getty,Lance Murphey/AP

So Congressman Stephen Fincher has come up with an idea. Not a new one, to be sure, but Washington today is a Sahara of ideas, so every idea is welcome. Fincher, a Republican from Tennessee, has introduced legislation that would require states to randomly drug-test 20 percent of their welfare recipients.

Fincher introduced his bill after an appeals court had ruled that such a requirement violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure. Seems that conservatives like only one amendment in the Bill of Rights these days. I won’t tell you which one, but the first one to guess correctly gets an AR-15 assault weapon.

In a statement, Fincher said, “It’s not unreasonable to ask folks to stay clean in order to receive federal assistance.” Fincher—who hails from Frog Jump, Tennessee, and is a self-styled fiscal conservative—says he just wants to bring a little Frog Jump common sense to Washington.

But the Environmental Working Group charges that the congressman, who is managing partner of Fincher Farms in West Tennessee, has received $3.2 million in federal farm subsidies over 10 years. Fincher has said that much of that total is in the form of loans, which he repays. Of course, receiving a federal loan is a benefit, even if it is repaid. But Fincher does acknowledge directly pocketing $50,000 to $75,000 a year in payments above and beyond the loans. The average recipient of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (a.k.a. welfare), by contrast, gets $392 per month. So Fincher, who boasts of being a successful agribusinessman, is by his own admission taking at least 10 times more federal money each year than the average impoverished American receives in welfare. (Fincher’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)

Why not apply Fincher’s logic to Farmer Fincher? Lord knows farmers work their tails off. But so do lots of folks whose work is not federally subsidized. So if Farmer Fincher wants to bank thousands in cash and benefit from millions in loans, he ought to be willing to pee in a jar just like some poor single mother on TANF.

But why stop there? Let’s apply Fincher’s logic to all federal largesse. Drug-test Wall Street bankers who take billion-dollar bailouts, hedge-fund managers who exploit tax loopholes to pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries, defense contractors, radio talk-show hosts who broadcast on Armed Forces Networks.

Fincher is concerned about drug use in the welfare population, so I presume he is aware that there have been reports of drug abuse among these other populations as well: congressmen, farmers, bankers, and radio talk-show hosts.

As a high-ranking White House official, I submitted to random drug tests. Seemed like a good idea to make sure the people who were advising the most powerful person on earth weren’t jacked up on crank. (Or is it “cranked up on jack”? I must admit I am not fully conversant with the drug nomenclature.) So why not test presidents—and potential presidents—as well? Perhaps there was a psychopharmacological explanation for Barack Obama’s poor debate performance in Denver. Bill Maher certainly thought so. Maher, who gave the pro-Obama super PAC that I advised $1 million, tweeted during the debate that perhaps the president had blown his whole million on weed.

Or Rick Perry. During the 2012 GOP primaries, I was one of many who wondered what kind of happy pills might explain his bizarre speech before a New Hampshire think tank—not to mention Perry’s epic brain freeze during a debate (now known by the shorthand “the Oops Moment”). Perry was so loopy that Jon Stewart (thanking the comedy gods, no doubt) joked: “Best-case scenario, that dude’s hammered. Worst-case scenario, that is Perry sober, and every time we’ve seen him previously, he’s been hammered.” After the election, Mike Allen and Evan Thomas of Politico reported that Perry indeed had been doped up. “It became an open secret,” they wrote in Inside the Circus, “that he was using painkillers in sufficient dosages to keep him standing through the two-hour debates.”

It is interesting—but not surprising—that when Congressman Fincher thinks of welfare recipients he doesn’t think of himself. And when he thinks about people who are high on drugs, his immediate stereotype is a welfare recipient, not a banker, radio talk-show host, or politician. Maybe instead of drug testing we need a hypocrisy test.