House Passes Major Cuts to Food Stamps

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va. speaks at the National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis, Friday, April 13, 2012. 
National Journal
Billy House
Sept. 19, 2013, 3:27 p.m.

The House nar­rowly com­pleted its struggle to pass the food-stamps por­tion of its farm-bill reau­thor­iz­a­tion Thursday, with no Demo­crats vot­ing to back a $39 bil­lion cut to the pro­gram over 10 years.

House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that the en­tire meas­ure, in­clud­ing a bill ad­op­ted earli­er to ad­dress ag­ri­cul­ture policy, will now be sent to the Sen­ate as a res­ult of the 217-210 vote, which saw 15 Re­pub­lic­ans join Demo­crats in op­pos­i­tion. He said ne­go­ti­ations by con­fer­ees rep­res­ent­ing both cham­bers will be­gin on a fi­nal bill — and none too soon, be­cause the ex­ist­ing ex­ten­sion ex­pires Sept. 30.

When it comes to food stamps, the House and Sen­ate are not close. The Sen­ate’s ver­sion of a farm bill cuts only about a tenth of what the House meas­ure does from the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram, about $4 bil­lion over 10 years. And Demo­crats who con­trol the Sen­ate already have signaled they don’t plan to simply split the dif­fer­ence with the House ver­sion on a pro­gram that be­ne­fits more than 47 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans, or roughly one in sev­en.

“House Re­pub­lic­ans are de­term­ined to gut the nu­tri­tion-as­sist­ance pro­grams in the name of aus­ter­ity, even though nine out of 10 re­cip­i­ents are fam­il­ies with chil­dren, seni­or cit­izens, or people with dis­ab­il­it­ies,” com­plained Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., on Thursday.

Some Demo­crats, such as Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, are la­beling the Re­pub­lic­an food-stamp cuts as “Can­tor’s bill.” It’s not a com­pli­ment. Rather, it’s an at­tempt to tie its lan­guage dir­ectly to House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, R-Va., a prime au­thor, and House con­ser­vat­ives they say these Demo­crats are hold­ing up oth­er im­port­ant bills.

Can­tor and oth­er Re­pub­lic­an sup­port­ers say their bill closes loop­holes and re­forms work and eli­gib­il­ity re­quire­ments for “able-bod­ied” adults. The idea, they say, is to elim­in­ate fraud and waste, and not to take away food-stamp be­ne­fits from law-abid­ing be­ne­fi­ciar­ies who meet in­come and as­set tests and who are will­ing to com­ply with its re­quire­ments.

“This bill is de­signed to give people a hand when they need it most,” Can­tor said, speak­ing on the House floor Thursday. He also said that the bill “points to the dig­nity of a job.”

Over­all, the House bill’s pro­jec­ted $764 bil­lion in total spend­ing over 10 years for food stamps rep­res­ents about 80 per­cent of the nearly $1 tril­lion price tag for the en­tire farm bill.

The start of a two-cham­ber con­fer­ence on a new bill has been in limbo since this sum­mer. That’s when an earli­er ver­sion of the House’s farm bill car­ry­ing a more-mod­est $20.5 bil­lion in food-stamp cuts over 10 years went down to de­feat, ow­ing to a lack of sup­port from con­ser­vat­ives who be­lieved the cuts did not go far enough and from Demo­crats who thought they went too far.

That earli­er ver­sion had been ad­vanced with bi­par­tis­an sup­port in the House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee un­der the lead­er­ship of its chair­man, Rep. Frank Lu­cas, R-Okla., and rank­ing mem­ber Col­lin Peterson, D-Minn. But when taken to the House floor for a vote, it could not over­come con­ser­vat­ive op­pos­i­tion.

Boehner and oth­er House GOP lead­ers, seek­ing to avoid the em­bar­rass­ment of not hav­ing passed any ver­sion of a farm bill, then re­spon­ded by strip­ping the nu­tri­tion­al pro­grams from the House meas­ure al­to­geth­er, and were able to gain pas­sage of an ag­ri­cul­ture-pro­grams-only meas­ure.

Af­ter­ward, Can­tor led a spe­cial work­ing group to come up with a solu­tion meant to sat­is­fy House con­ser­vat­ives, which wound up be­ing a plan to double the com­mit­tee’s food-stamp cuts. The only ques­tion mark for Re­pub­lic­ans dur­ing the vote Thursday was wheth­er too many of their mod­er­ates — if any — would aban­don the bill. They did not.

The 15 Re­pub­lic­ans who voted against the meas­ure were Reps. Shel­ley Moore Capito of West Vir­gin­ia; Mike Fitzpatrick and Pat Mee­han of Pennsylvania; Jef­frey Forten­berry of Neb­raska; Chris Gib­son, Mi­chael Grimm, Richard Hanna, and Peter King of New York; Wal­ter Jones of North Car­o­lina; Chris Smith and Frank Lo­Bi­ondo of New Jer­sey; Dav­id Valadao and Gary Miller of Cali­for­nia; Frank Wolf of Vir­gin­ia; and Don Young of Alaska.

As for Lu­cas — who as Ag­ri­cul­ture chair­man was, at least of­fi­cially, man­aging the floor de­bate on the bill Thursday for Re­pub­lic­ans — some Demo­crats ex­pressed sym­pathy.

“I know you tried to bring a bi­par­tis­an bill to the floor,” Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­if., said to Lu­cas. “What happened after that — well, I won’t get in­to that.” But Pelosi said the Re­pub­lic­an pro­pos­al on the floor Thursday “is prey­ing on people, on chil­dren, on vet­er­ans, on seni­ors — on all those who are strug­gling to do their best in our coun­try.”

For his part, Lu­cas seemed more in­tently fo­cused on just get­ting a bill to a two-cham­ber con­fer­ence, where a fi­nal ver­sion can be ne­go­ti­ated with the Sen­ate.

“It is my hope to pass this bill so the farm bill [ne­go­ti­ation] pro­cess will con­tin­ue,” Lu­cas said, adding he would have pre­ferred for this to hap­pen a year ago.

“It should not be this hard to pass a bill to make sure the con­sumers in the coun­try, and around the world, have enough to eat,” he said. “But everything seems to be hard these days.”

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