Fight Over Food Stamps Dominates Farm Bill

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., center, flanked by the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., left, and Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 15, 2013, prior to the start of the committee's hearing to consider proposals to the 2013 Farm Bill, including small cuts to the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program in an effort to appease conservatives who say the food aid has become too expensive.
National Journal
Billy House
Sept. 18, 2013, 4:30 p.m.

When House law­makers take to the floor this week to ad­dress a bill that will set fund­ing levels for the food-stamp pro­gram, they will be fin­ish­ing a fight that has torn the tra­di­tion­al five-year farm bill in two. Lit­er­ally.

Earli­er this year, House Re­pub­lic­ans split the farm bill in­to two pieces of le­gis­la­tion, one to handle ag­ri­cul­ture policy and the oth­er to ad­dress the food-stamp pro­gram. The ag­ri­cul­ture piece was ap­proved. But the food-stamp meas­ure has be­come a fo­cal point as Re­pub­lic­ans, led by Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, R-Va., at­tempt to make cuts to the pro­gram that go far bey­ond what the House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee ap­proved.

Wheth­er re­du­cing the pro­gram by tens of bil­lions winds up be­ing little more than polit­ic­al mes­saging — a way to pa­ci­fy House GOP hard-liners — or a cata­lyst for sub­stant­ive change to the food-stamp pro­gram will be de­term­ined in the next few days. An ex­ist­ing farm-bill ex­ten­sion ex­pires Sept. 30, and a fi­nal product still must be hashed out with the Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled Sen­ate.

At stake is fed­er­al as­sist­ance that is de­signed to battle hun­ger for mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans, al­though views dif­fer on ex­actly how many could be im­pacted and how much need ex­ists.

More than 47 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans — one in sev­en — be­ne­fit from the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram, or food stamps. The Cen­ter on Budget and Policy Pri­or­it­ies has es­tim­ated in a re­port that the House Re­pub­lic­an plan would elim­in­ate food as­sist­ance for 4 mil­lion to 6 mil­lion people. The Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice es­tim­ates that 2.8 mil­lion people would lose out.

Over­all, CBO says the House Re­pub­lic­an bill would re­duce spend­ing on food stamps by about $39 bil­lion over 10 years. By con­trast, the Sen­ate’s already-passed farm bill calls for cut­ting the pro­gram by about $4 bil­lion.

If the House ver­sion passes, there’s a battle ahead with Sen­ate Demo­crats over how much to cut the pro­gram. “Debbie Stabenow will not sup­port cuts at that level,” said House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er, D-Md., re­fer­ring to the chair­wo­man of the Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee. Hoy­er char­ac­ter­ized the GOP meas­ure as an­oth­er ex­ample of an ex­trem­ist bill go­ing nowhere.

Cri­ti­cism also comes from in­flu­en­tial voices out­side Con­gress. In a joint Los Angeles Times op-ed Monday, two former Sen­ate ma­jor­ity lead­ers — Re­pub­lic­an Bob Dole and Demo­crat Tom Daschle — noted that farm bills have en­joyed bi­par­tis­an sup­port for dec­ades. “In a coun­try strug­gling to emerge from the worst eco­nom­ic re­ces­sion since the De­pres­sion, this is no time to play polit­ics with hun­ger,” the pair wrote. “As friends and col­leagues, we hope that the House will do the right thing and fol­low the Sen­ate’s lead in passing a farm bill with ad­equate fund­ing for food as­sist­ance. Our na­tion’s fu­ture de­pends on it.”

In fact, the battle in the House just to get to this point has un­der­scored the sharp polit­ic­al and ideo­lo­gic­al di­vi­sions over the dec­ades-old prac­tice of pair­ing ag­ri­cul­ture policy with a key so­cial safety-net pro­gram, and what may or may not be needed to re­form food stamps.

A ver­sion of the farm bill ad­vanced earli­er this year with bi­par­tis­an sup­port in the Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee un­der the lead­er­ship of Chair­man Frank Lu­cas, R-Okla., and rank­ing mem­ber Col­lin Peterson, D-Minn. But that bill, which pro­posed cuts of $20.5 bil­lion to food stamps, was un­ex­pec­tedly de­feated in a floor vote in June.

Many con­ser­vat­ives at the time com­plained that the plan passed by the pan­el did not cut deep enough — 62 Re­pub­lic­ans voted against it — while many Demo­crats said those cuts would go too far.

Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, and oth­er House GOP lead­ers, seek­ing to avoid the em­bar­rass­ment of not hav­ing passed any ver­sion of a farm bill, re­spon­ded by strip­ping the nu­tri­tion­al-pro­grams sec­tion from the House bill al­to­geth­er, and were able to gain pas­sage of an ag­ri­cul­ture-pro­grams-only meas­ure. The cost of that trimmed-down bill is about $196 bil­lion, only 20 per­cent of the farm bill’s nearly $1 tril­lion total price tag when the food-stamp por­tion is in­cluded.

Af­ter­ward, Can­tor and oth­er lead­ers held fast to a com­mit­ment that the House would have to vote on com­plet­ing the bill be­fore any ne­go­ti­ations would com­mence with the Sen­ate on a fi­nal ver­sion.

And so, the chal­lenge for House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers be­came how to get the un­fin­ished nu­tri­tion sec­tion passed on the floor. Con­clud­ing that a solu­tion would mean hav­ing to sat­is­fy House con­ser­vat­ives, a Re­pub­lic­an work­ing group led by Can­tor de­cided to re­vise the bill by doub­ling the food-stamp cuts, adding in new work re­quire­ments, and mak­ing oth­er changes to elim­in­ate fraud and waste.

Some con­ser­vat­ives have com­plained that loop­holes have al­lowed people to en­roll in the food-stamp pro­gram even though their in­come ex­ceeds the nor­mal thresholds, not­ing that the num­ber of able-bod­ied adults un­der the age of 50 without chil­dren en­rolled grew by 163.7 per­cent from 2007 to 2011.

“No law-abid­ing be­ne­fi­ciary who meets the in­come and as­set test of the cur­rent pro­gram and is will­ing to com­ply with ap­plic­able work re­quire­ments will lose their be­ne­fits un­der the bill,” Can­tor said on the House floor, de­scrib­ing some of the changes.

But the Cen­ter on Budget and Policy Pri­or­it­ies said in its re­port about the Re­pub­lic­an plan that “pro­ponents have mis­char­ac­ter­ized some of the pro­pos­al’s pro­vi­sions as ‘work re­quire­ments.’ … In real­ity, they would ter­min­ate ba­sic food as­sist­ance to people who would take any job or job train­ing op­por­tun­ity offered but can­not find one.”

Mean­while, Stabenow has said that time is run­ning out for the House and Sen­ate to reach a fi­nal ver­sion.

An­oth­er aim of some con­ser­vat­ives — to per­man­ently split off food stamps from the farm bill — ap­pears un­likely to hap­pen in this go-round.

Ty­ing the two to­geth­er is a pre­ced­ent dat­ing from 1973, on the the­ory that law­makers rep­res­ent­ing rur­al dis­tricts would vote for ag­ri­cul­ture pro­grams while law­makers from urb­an and sub­urb­an dis­tricts would sup­port nu­tri­tion pro­grams. It is a mar­riage that some hun­ger and so­cial-ser­vice groups say is im­port­ant and con­tin­ues to work. But con­ser­vat­ives re­spond that this bal­ance makes it too polit­ic­ally dif­fi­cult to pass needed changes.

Even so, con­ser­vat­ives in­dic­ate they are sat­is­fied for now with the re­writ­ten House lan­guage — in­clud­ing those who have been in­sist­ing that split­ting the farm bill is a crit­ic­al step in re­form­ing ag­ri­cul­ture and food-stamp policy.

“While we still have a long way to go in re­form­ing both food-stamp and farm pro­grams, this is a vic­tory for those who be­lieve that we should meas­ure suc­cess by the num­ber of fam­il­ies who get back on their feet, not by how much gov­ern­ment in­creases spend­ing year after year,” said Rep. Marlin Stutz­man, R-Ind., in a state­ment Monday.

With House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers fo­cused on sat­is­fy­ing con­ser­vat­ives, there are now ques­tions about wheth­er House GOP mod­er­ates, many of whom rep­res­ent dis­tricts in or close to urb­an areas, will back the bill, giv­en the deep­er cuts. Their sal­va­tion may come in simply agree­ing to ad­vance the bill, with the ex­pect­a­tion that the Sen­ate will in­sist on lower re­duc­tions.

For most Demo­crats, there is no ques­tion. They point out that people who cur­rently re­ceive food stamps are already set to see their be­ne­fits re­duced in Novem­ber.

That’s be­cause the 2009 Re­cov­ery Act’s tem­por­ary boost, en­acted by a Demo­crat­ic Con­gress, is sched­uled to end. For fam­il­ies of three, the cut will be $29 from a monthly be­ne­fit of about $526. It seems un­likely Con­gress will do any­thing to pre­vent this, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the Cen­ter on Budget and Policy Pri­or­it­ies.

Law­makers like Rep. Rosa De­Lauro, D-Conn., also point to a new Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment re­port show­ing that 14.5 per­cent of Amer­ic­an house­holds re­main “food in­sec­ure,” mean­ing they had dif­fi­culty at some time over the past year provid­ing enough food.

“This is no way for the wealth­i­est coun­try in the world to be­have,” De­Lauro said.

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