Farm-Bill Conferees Consider Compromise Cut to Food Stamps

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 30: House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) (L) and Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) talk before the start of a conference committee mark up hearing in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill October 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. The bicameral and bipartisan conference committee came together to work out the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013.
National Journal
Billy House
Nov. 7, 2013, 1:07 p.m.

Farm-bill con­fer­ees are dis­cuss­ing set­ting the level of food-stamp re­duc­tions at about $10 bil­lion over the next dec­ade, a com­prom­ise between the Sen­ate’s pro­posed $4 bil­lion cut and the House’s $39 bil­lion in sav­ings.

But that fi­nal num­ber could change de­pend­ing on what policy strings will have to be at­tached to such a deal to get House con­ser­vat­ives to go along—and any such moves would have to steer clear of ali­en­at­ing too many House and Sen­ate Demo­crats.

Adding to the com­plex­ity is that some Demo­crats now ar­gue that a $10 bil­lion cut to food stamps would, in real­ity, rep­res­ent only part of a lar­ger re­duc­tion that is already tak­ing place. They sug­gest that $11 bil­lion in oth­er sav­ings over the next three years tied to the Nov. 1 ex­pir­a­tion of a tem­por­ary boost to food-stamp be­ne­fits un­der the 2009 stim­u­lus law should also be coun­ted.

“That means we’ve already ab­sorbed a double-di­git cut even be­fore the farm bill is ne­go­ti­ated,” said one Demo­crat­ic source. The $4 bil­lion cut con­tained in the Sen­ate bill would—un­der this ar­gu­ment—then make the Sen­ate’s start­ing of­fer a $15 bil­lion re­duc­tion. But Re­pub­lic­ans don’t go along with that.

That gap between the Sen­ate and House ap­proaches to food stamps, form­ally known as the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram (SNAP), is one of the big hurdles, if not the biggest, in con­fer­ees reach­ing some deal on an over­all farm-bill reau­thor­iz­a­tion.

In all, SNAP spend­ing rep­res­ents about 79 per­cent of total spend­ing out­lays un­der the bill for ag­ri­cul­ture and nu­tri­tion pro­grams—about $764 bil­lion out of the $973 bil­lion au­thor­ized through the next dec­ade. More than 47 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans—one in sev­en—be­ne­fit from food stamps.

Those with know­ledge of the on­go­ing House and Sen­ate talks say ne­go­ti­at­ors are try­ing to find a level of cuts that would main­tain sup­port from House and Sen­ate Demo­crats, in­clud­ing pro­gress­ives, but also cap­ture enough back­ing in a floor vote of con­ser­vat­ives in the House.

Over­all, a $10 bil­lion fig­ure in 10-year SNAP sav­ings would more than double the $4 bil­lion cut in the Sen­ate bill passed earli­er this year un­der the guid­ance of Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

But that may not be such a heavy lift. The ad­di­tion­al $6 bil­lion sav­ings above the Sen­ate-pro­posed level could mostly be paid through a fur­ther tweak in how SNAP be­ne­fits would be cal­cu­lated, from a change that has already been in­cor­por­ated in the Sen­ate bill.

The SNAP stat­ute now al­lows for cer­tain de­duc­tions in cal­cu­lat­ing a house­hold’s be­ne­fit level—in­clud­ing a shel­ter de­duc­tion that in­cor­por­ates util­ity costs. That means that if a fam­ily re­ceives be­ne­fits through the fed­er­al Low In­come Home En­ergy As­sist­ance Pro­gram (LI­HEAP), this de­duc­tion al­lows for a high­er food-stamp be­ne­fit for the house­hold. Both the Sen­ate and the House bills this year seek to lim­it this type of de­duc­tion, which has been re­ferred to as the “eat-and-heat” loop­hole to qual­i­fy for ad­di­tion­al be­ne­fits.

The Sen­ate bill raises the min­im­um heat­ing as­sist­ance to qual­i­fy from $1 an­nu­ally to $10 an­nu­ally, to get to its $4 bil­lion in food-stamp sav­ings. The House bill raises that to $20 an­nu­ally to get to about $8.7 bil­lion in food-stamp sav­ings.

That move is seen as likely draw­ing some Demo­crat­ic op­pos­i­tion, but not enough to kill the idea, and it would ac­com­plish a bulk of the sav­ings needed to get to $10 bil­lion.

Of course, the Sen­ate is only half of the equa­tion. An ini­tial House ver­sion of the bill would have cut $20 bil­lion from the food-stamp pro­gram, rather than the $39 bil­lion cut later ap­proved. But it died on the floor from lack of sup­port, with con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans say­ing that it cut too little.

Still, ef­forts now to pur­sue a two-cham­ber deal that could bring the even smal­ler cut of about $10 bil­lion are not seen as ne­ces­sar­ily quix­ot­ic. That’s be­cause the talks are also de­scribed by sources as en­com­passing con­sid­er­a­tion of some of the policy changes sought by House Re­pub­lic­ans.

Those GOP pro­pos­als in­clude re­quire­ments for people to find a job or en­roll in work-train­ing pro­grams to get be­ne­fits. Re­pub­lic­ans also are push­ing to al­low states to drug-test SNAP ap­plic­ants, a re­quire­ment seen as something that would de­ter some people from pur­su­ing be­ne­fits. And they would elim­in­ate the op­tion states have of seek­ing a waiver from rules that re­quire able-bod­ied adults to work or par­ti­cip­ate in job train­ing to get ex­ten­ded food-stamp be­ne­fits.

Stabenow has made it clear she is open to look­ing at ways to tight­en up pro­grams and find sav­ings by tar­get­ing fraud and ab­use, but also that she will not make ar­bit­rary cuts that take away food from people.

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