Volunteers fill bags for a school lunch program. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta.)
Late Wednesday night, the House Agriculture Committee passed a comprehensive, $940 billion farm bill. This was a first step towards making a real, five-year bill law—something the last Congress failed to do, and something that, by all accounts, this Congress deems an absolute necessity.
But one central issue could derail the farm legislation once again: food stamp cuts. Republicans are demanding even deeper cuts than what they proposed last year, and Thursday morning on Capitol Hill, several House Democrats made it clear they are willing to let the farm bill die if it contains those steep cuts.
The bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee last night slashed $20.5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, $4 billion more than what the committee proposed last year. These cuts would take away food stamps from nearly 2 million people, and several hundred thousand low-income children would stop receiving free school meals.
At a press conference Thursday morning, several prominent Democrats drew red lines around the cuts. “Lest anyone think that this [debate] is going quietly into the night, you have another thing coming,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro. “Maybe, and I can’t say for sure, maybe we’ll take a look at whether this bill can move at all.”
Representative Jim McGovern was more direct. “The $20.5 billion cut in SNAP is a poison pill. It means that we shouldn’t be supporting the farm bill,” he said.
The stakes are extremely high here. The agricultural community—from farmers to the multibillion-dollar industry players—badly wants a new farm bill, and powerful senators from rural states, in particular, are bent on enacting it. President Obama has repeatedly pressed Congress to pass one.
These threats from McGovern and DeLauro, who were joined by Representatives Marcia Fudge and Barbara Lee at Thursday’s event, carry real weight. The backdrop is that many conservatives oppose the House Agriculture committee bill in part because the SNAP cuts are too small—Paul Ryan’s 2013 budget calls for $135 billion in cuts to food stamps and for the program to be block-granted to the states.
Many far-right conservatives will likely oppose the farm bill for this reason, and for many other reasons—voting yes on a nearly trillion-dollar bill isn’t easy for them. That means Democrats will be needed to secure House passage, and if liberal members can mobilize enough colleagues to join them in steadfast opposition to the food stamp cuts, the farm bill might not pass. (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did not return a request for comment about how she would instruct members on this issue.)
Even if the bill does pass the House, food stamp cuts could still blow up final passage when the House and Senate try to reconcile their bills. The Senate version of the farm bill cuts one-fifth of what the House proposes. Senator Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told reporters on a conference call Thursday afternoon that she would not accept the food stamp provisions of the House bill.
“I absolutely reject the level of cuts [to SNAP] and the way this is done in the House,” Stabenow said. “That policy does not have support in the United States Senate. I won’t support it the conference.”
McGovern said he hopes Obama, too, will prioritize the food stamp fight over simply getting a bill passed. “We need the White House to come up here and help us a little bit on this,” he said. “I really do believe there ought to be a line in the sand drawn, by this White House, that you’re not going to sign a farm bill with any SNAP cuts. Certainly not cuts of $20 billion.”
The House Agriculture Committee bill cuts SNAP primarily by eliminating “categorical eligibility”—a method that forty states use to make sure needy families get food stamps. The 1996 welfare law allowed states flexibility with food stamp qualification limits by aligning them to more generous rules used under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and that’s the flexibility the GOP wants to eliminate.
Generous, of course, is really a misnomer here. The qualification for food stamps—130 percent of the poverty level—often excludes needy families who technically exceed that limit, but have disposable income well below 130 percent because of childcare and other expenses, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explains. Also, the SNAP asset limit of $2,000 hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 1986 and has fallen 53 percent in real terms.
So forty states, both red and blue, use the flexibility provided by categorical eligibility to make sure needy families don’t get screwed out of food stamps. If that eligibility is scrapped, as the GOP proposes, the Congressional Budget Office estimates 1.8 million low-income will stop getting food stamps and 210,000 needy children will stop getting free meals at school.
This is an outcome that far-right members of the House proudly champion. “It seems to me that the goal of this administration is to expand the rolls of people who are on SNAP benefits, the purpose of which is to expand the dependency class,” said Representative Steve King during Wednesday’s committee debate.
McGovern and his colleagues also see this debate in moral terms, though naturally very different ones. “Here’s the deal: we have 50 million people in the United States of America who are hungry. Seventeen million of them are children. We’re the richest, most powerful country in the world. We all should be ashamed,” he said Thursday.
“The debate around the farm bill yesterday should not have been focused on how we should cut SNAP. We should be talking about how we improve and expand SNAP,” he added. “We should be talking about how we invest more in nutrition, invest more in the effort to end hunger.”
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