WASHINGTON ― One of the major policy goals of House Republicans in 2018 was supposed to be a sweeping “welfare reform.” But an unlikely force may delay that fight for another year: the Republicans’ own conservative wing.
House conservatives have been vocal cheerleaders for overhauling the food stamps program, known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Conservatives specifically support adding stricter work requirements for people to receive SNAP benefits, and the traditional place for that debate would be as part of the five-year reauthorization of the farm bill, which expires in October. But reading the mood of their fellow Republicans in this election year, conservatives now seem to be pushing for a tactical retreat.
“They better not do a long-term reauthorization,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told HuffPost on Tuesday. “Only way I’d be for a long-term reauthorization is if we actually addressed the food stamp issue and do welfare reform.”
Jordan said he supported a five-year reauthorization of nutrition and farm programs in the unlikely event the bill included his priorities. “But you know the lay of the land. And so there better not be a long-term reauthorization unless we deal with that,” Jordan said, referring to stricter work requirements.
“In lieu of doing what we need to do,” Jordan continued, a one-year extension of existing programs would be “much better.”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told HuffPost that “any momentum for a new bill is weak,” also suggesting that a short-term extension of nutrition and farm programs might be the way to go.
Part of the problem for conservatives is that they know Democratic votes will be necessary to pass a farm bill ― at least in the Senate ― and they think many of their fellow Republicans won’t go along with a plan that puts tighter restrictions on SNAP beneficiaries in an election year.
A prominent conservative aide noted that without the advantage of a fast-track budget process ― in which Republicans could pass a work requirement bill with a simple majority in the Senate, like they did for tax reform ― and with the intra-party disagreements over both food stamps and agriculture subsidies, the farm bill “becomes a needlessly divisive process for House Republicans this year.”
But on the other side of the GOP conference, some Republicans who oppose more SNAP cuts sense that passing a five-year reauthorization this year is their best shot at preventing things like SNAP work requirements for able-bodied adults with young children.
“To pass a farm bill, we need a bipartisan coalition,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group, told HuffPost on Tuesday. “We’ll need that now, and we’ll need that a year from now.”
Conservatives have been holding out hope that Republicans would use the budget reconciliation process to enact additional SNAP work requirements.
“If budget reconciliation was perceived as an option,” the senior conservative aide told HuffPost, “leadership could dump any welfare reform ideas that they didn’t want to deal with during the farm bill into the budget.”
Since there’s apparently no plan to do a budget, however, there’s no shot of using the special reconciliation process. And without any other realistic way to enact the changes conservatives want, the farm bill becomes the only vehicle to push for those changes, meaning they won’t want to give up any of their leverage there.
When HuffPost raised the idea with Dent ― that conservatives were holding out hope to pass SNAP work requirements through reconciliation, but didn’t want to give up leverage on the farm bill just yet ― he suggested the argument was irrelevant.
“The farm bill’s expiring,” Dent said. “We should deal with it now because that’s our job, not kick the can in hopes of getting some other policy that we can’t get today.”
The House Agriculture Committee is moving ahead with at least a markup of the farm bill. Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) told HuffPost on Tuesday that he intends to finish the reauthorization this year. Asked about a one-year extension, Conaway said that was “not something I’m considering.”
In fact, the Agriculture Committee plans to unveil a draft of the farm bill next month, and the panel actually met Tuesday morning to discuss it.
“We hope to be able to convince at least 217 of my good friends to support the legislation,” Conaway said.
The congressman, who has in years past resisted cuts to SNAP, does seem more open to ideas like additional work requirements ― a fact that Meadows noted when he praised Conaway as a “great advocate for the ag community.” But even if Conaway did go along with what conservatives want on work requirements, there’s a good chance the Senate wouldn’t.
Spokespeople for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said they expect the Senate to vote on its version of a farm bill later this year. With 60 votes needed to pass a farm bill in that chamber, Democrats there have significant sway over changes to SNAP.
Back in the House, the Freedom Caucus has some say over what comes out of the chamber, but they don’t control what gets a vote. By pushing for a low-drama extension, conservatives are hoping to persuade House leaders to kick this can down the road rather than getting into a potentially messy fight.
Spokespeople for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) did not immediately respond when HuffPost asked if they were committed to giving Conaway’s farm bill a floor vote this year.
SNAP is one of the biggest safety net programs in the U.S., with more than 42 million beneficiaries. The program provides a monthly stipend averaging $125 per recipient that can be redeemed in grocery stores for most food products.
Federal law already prohibits more than three months of SNAP benefits for unemployed able-bodied adults without dependents, but states are allowed to waive the time limit in areas with high unemployment. Republicans agree on making it more difficult for states to obtain such waivers, even though childless adults without disabilities represented only about 8 percent of SNAP beneficiaries in 2016. But Jordan has also proposed expanding the work requirement so that it applies to some parents as well.
The proposed changes, the exact text of which Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee have not been shown, already have SNAP advocates worried. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) is concerned that how Republicans have gone about preparing for the farm bill markup shows that many people will, in fact, get kicked off food stamps — even if the changes are less aggressive than what Jordan wants.
“The way this is playing out right now you are paving the way for a more partisan bill,” McGovern said.