Despite outcry from lawmakers, food stamp program is safe

Washington — The food stamp program is not going away, and it probablyy won’t even change much. 

But you wouldn’t know it by all of the verbal and partisan hand-wringing that could be heard this week on the floor of the House.  

Connecticut’s lawmakers joined the clamor from other Democrats who said House Republicans were destroying the food stamp program by keeping it out of a farm bill.

But the reality is that the impact of the farm bill approved by a majority of Republicans on the food stamp program is … nothing.
That’s because the food stamp program is an entitlement, like Social Security and Medicare, and will continue to operate with or without Congress’ periodic reauthorization.

Dale Moore, executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the recent food fight in Congress over the farm bill “was much more about perception … than actual impact.”

He said it’s likely that the five-year farm bill the House approved Thursday on a 216-208 vote will be negotiated with a Senate bill that does include the food stamp program, but cuts it by $4 billion over 10 years by limiting eligibility and attacking “fraud and waste.”

If a final farm bill ends up excluding the so-called “nutrition title,” Moore said, the food stamp program is likely to continue to be funded at today’s levels.

Republicans leaders — versus some of their more conservative members — also say they will try to win support for a “consensus” bill that would reauthorize the nutrition programs. 

But that may be elusive.

Whatever House Republicans do, the food stamp program, formally called the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP), is not going away.

But that fact got lost in Thursday’s heated rhetoric.

“A vote for this bill is a vote to end nutrition in America,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said Friday that “the farm bill passed by the House yesterday leaves millions of hungry Americans behind while protecting taxpayer subsidies and government-backed insurance for agribusiness … There’s nothing smart about taking food away from hungry children or ignoring the millions of Americans scraping to get by.”

There was a political reason GOP leaders left the food stamp program out of the farm bill.

The right wing of the GOP helped kill a farm bill earlier this month because its members believed that //the food stamp part of it its “nutrition title” that would have cut the food stamp program by $2 billion a year did not go far enough to whittle down the program.

So House Speaker John Boehner decided to strip out the nutrition programs and allow a vote the rest of the legislation, which would reauthorize spending on all farm programs.

That provoked the wrath of many Democrats.

“Shame on you,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. “It’s despicable. What is it about poor people you don’t like?”

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, backed a failed move to amend the bill to address food safety issues. She also said the rest of the bill needed changes.

“It wasn’t a reasonable reform to gut more than $20 billion in nutrition assistance for families, and it’s not reasonable to drop anti-hunger programs from inclusion in the farm bill,” Esty said.

Splitting the bill broke a longstanding precedent established in 1973 to marry agriculture programs to nutrition programs. The House’s split was opposed by both farm and anti-hunger groups because keeping the programs together helped broaden support for farm bills in the past. 

The theory was that lawmakers representing rural districts would vote for the farm bills subsidies and lawmakers from urban and suburban districts, like DeLauro, would support the nutrition programs.

“Sometimes the farm programs would be helped by the nutrition programs, and sometimes support for the farm programs would bring in votes for food stamps,” Moore said.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, decried the break in tradition.

“(The) House Republican bill broke the four-decade strong farm-and-food coalition by dropping nutrition spending from the legislation,” he said. “Rather than working across the aisle to advance a proposal to address the needs of our nation’s farmers and our neediest Americans, the House Republican leadership instead offered a cynical, partisan, and disappointing stunt.”

The reality is that the emergence of a Tea Party caucus, which rejects both food stamps and farm subsidies as wasteful spending — not the Republican leadership — broke the coalition.

That may endanger the food stamps program in the long run, said Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut!.

“The fear of splitting off the food stamps from the rest of the farm bill is that it makes it more vulnerable to changes that would (shrink) the program,” she said.

 

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