Somewhere in the US Capitol, a small group of legislators are hashing out a final five-year farm bill. Among many sizeable tasks, the conference committee must reconcile $40 billion in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cuts from the House version with $4 billion in cuts from the Senate version.
Early reports indicate they may have settled on $9 billion in cuts, which presents Democrats with a real conundrum—amidst relentless messaging about a return to the War on Poverty, and heading into an election year where the party plans to make a populist economic pitch to voters, can Democrats in Congress really vote for a bill that cuts $9 billion from food stamps amidst a bad economy?
For some House Democrats, the answer is easy. “I am not going to support a farm bill that increases hunger, period,” Representative Jim McGovern told MSNBC last week. McGovern and some of his colleagues have been blasting food stamp cuts from the outset, and if enough conservative legislators flee the farm bill because the cuts aren’t deep enough, McGovern and his band might be able to derail the farm bill entirely by also withholding support. The SNAP program doesn’t need the farm bill to continue operating; benefits would just continue on autopilot at current levels.
It’s particularly easy for legislators in urban areas to take this approach. “There’s no reason for me to vote for the farm bill. I don’t have an (agricultural) district,” Representative Gene Green told The Nation. He represents Texas’ 29th District, which includes eastern Houston and some first-ring suburbs. Green didn’t vote for the last version of the farm bill because of the SNAP cuts. “I don’t have farmers who need the subsidies,” he said.
But most likely, McGovern and his like-minded colleagues aren’t a big enough group to stop the farm bill and its $9 billion in food stamp cuts. That would take a much larger group of Democrats, like when 172 Democrats opposed June’s version of the farm bill because it cut $20 billion from SNAP. Combined with sixty ultraconservative Republicans who voted no, it was enough to kill the bill by a wide margin.
So how does the mainstream House Democrat feel about these potential cuts? The Nation put that question to several members, including parts of the leadership team, during a roundtable with progressive reporters last week. The upshot: if the early reports are accurate, the farm bill will probably pass. Or at least receive no substantial opposition from Democrats.
Representative Jim Clyburn, the assistant Democratic leader, signaled that he was likely to support the bill—but that $9 billion was the most he could support in cuts. Any more and he would vote no.
He also qualified his answer by saying it depended how the cuts were structured. Reports suggest the $9 billion in cuts are actually realized by eliminating first-dollar food stamp eligibility for people also receiving low-income heading assistance from the federal government. That’s a method the fifteen states and the District of Columbia use to get additional benefits for poor residents.
Clyburn said he could support a bill along those lines. “Now that’s the kind of stuff that’s not getting into the benefits per se,” Clyburn told The Nation. “So what was presented to us is that we can get up to this number [$9 billion] without going any further on the benefits, the actual stamp.”
That’s not quite true—the 850,000 people who get additional food stamp benefits through so-called “Heat-and-Eat” initiatives would lose an average of $90 per month in benefits, according to the Congressional Research Service. But Clyburn is right that, beyond those people, overall food stamp levels would remain the same.
Several other Democrats interviewed by The Nation didn’t take McGovern’s hardline approach, and brushed aside questions of whether this undercut the “new War of Poverty” messaging. They also alluded to the “structuring” of the cuts.
“I haven’t seen the farm bill yet, so it may be something that’s totally unacceptable and unsalvageable,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “We should have a big debate on the food nutrition programs, and see exactly how they’re structured.”
Van Hollen also noted the large agricultural subsidies said to be included in the conference committee’s bill might also make it unacceptable.
Representative Bill Foster, who retook his seat in 2012 after losing it to a Tea Party Republican in 2010, said he was frustrated by potentially having to vote for food stamp cuts, but wouldn’t commit either way.
“That’s life in the minority. We’re always forced to vote on these very tough compromises. So the question is what is the diameter of the turd that’s in this bill,” he said. “That’s going to be negotiated and they’re going to have a very tough meeting about whether we should just say no and walk away.”
There will be strong arguments made for passing the farm bill in that meeting—obviously from rural Democrats, but perhaps also from defenders of SNAP who worry that if this bill fails, another version could come back with even deeper cuts. That’s certainly fair.
But whether Democrats ultimately assent will mean a lot for the 850,000 low-income Americans who rely on “Heat-and-Eat” programs. And if Democrats do sign on, it might make that economic populism pitch a little bit more complicated.