House Passes Major Cuts to Food Stamps

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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