Republicans Link Debt Ceiling To Food Benefit Cuts

Legislation Republicans have drafted would affect a quarter of all Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients.

WASHINGTON ― House Republicans have been coalescing around the idea of trying to make President Joe Biden accept stricter “work requirements” for federal programs that help people pay for groceries and health care.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) highlighted the idea during a speech at the New York Stock Exchange on Monday.

McCarthy said a forthcoming Republican spending plan will “restore work requirements that ensure able-bodied adults without dependents earn a paycheck and learn new skills.”

McCarthy noted that there are more job openings than people counted as unemployed.

“You know why? It’s in part because the Biden administration weakened work requirements,” McCarthy said. “Incentives matter. And the incentives today are out of whack. It’s time to get Americans back to work.”

McCarthy’s remarks followed recommendations from both moderate and hard-right factions within the House Republican conference for McCarthy to demand work requirements as part of a debt ceiling standoff with Biden.

Sometime this year, Congress will need to pass a law allowing the Treasury Department to continue paying federal debts or else the government will default, which could create financial chaos and maybe even crash the economy.

McCarthy has said Republicans won’t approve a “debt limit” change unless Biden agrees to spending cuts, but Republicans have been slow to offer specifics. McCarthy did not identify which federal programs need stricter rules, but in recent weeks House Republicans have pointed to Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The details of work requirements can be complicated but the political message can be simple and powerful, said Vanessa Williamson, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on the politics of taxes and spending.

“Americans in general see work as evidence of being an upstanding, deserving citizen, so politicians often find it can be rhetorically successful to link benefits to work,” Williamson said in an email.

At the same time, Williamson said, “Rhetorical appeals about non-working people living on government benefits tap into racialized stereotypes about the poor.”

Every month more than 22 million households receive federal nutrition assistance benefits, which can be redeemed for food products at grocery stores. Most SNAP households have members who are young, old or disabled, but roughly 13% include able-bodied adults without dependents ― the population Republicans are targeting.

For most of its history, Medicaid hasn’t had work requirements, and attempts to impose them during the Donald Trump administration met resistance from federal courts.

On the other hand, federal food assistance already has work requirements for able-bodied adults, but states have been able to waive the rules during the pandemic and whenever local unemployment is higher than average.

At the Capitol on Monday, McCarthy ignored a question from HuffPost about whether his proposal would affect both Medicaid and SNAP.

The existing SNAP work requirement is essentially a restriction on benefits for the unemployed; people who can’t document 20 hours per week of employment or “work activities” ― which can include training or job search ― can have only three months of benefits.

Earlier this year, Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) introduced the America Works Act, a bill that would make it harder for states to waive the work rules and also expand the definition of an able-bodied adult without a dependent. Currently the rule applies to childless adults aged 18-49; the Johnson proposal would apply the rule to adults as old as 64 and parents whose children are older than 6.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, said Johnson’s bill would affect a quarter of SNAP participants, or roughly 10 million people. The total includes 6 million adults and 4 million children in households that could lose benefits if their parents failed to meet the requirements.

Some people would be able to meet the requirement, the Center on Budget said. “But a very significant number would likely lose benefits because they are out of work or working insufficient hours, the state failed to screen them for an exemption they should have qualified for, or they were unable to navigate the verification system to prove they are working,” the CBPP’s Ed Bolen, Dottie Rosenbaum and Catlin Nchako wrote in a report last month.

McCarthy sought to downplay the possible impact of the proposed cut.

“Don’t believe anyone who says our plan would hurt America’s social safety net. We’re a very generous nation. And when people fall on tough times, we’ll help them. That will not change,” McCarthy said. “But this is important. Assistance programs are supposed to be temporary, not permanent. Hand up, not a handout. A bridge to independence, not a barrier.”

The problem for McCarthy is that even if he can corral unanimous support from House Republicans for a debt ceiling bill that cuts spending and beefs up work requirements, such a measure would likely lack enough support to make it through the Democratic-controlled Senate. The budget standoff will become a stalemate.

“Today House Republicans have made their priorities crystal clear: keep Wall Street happy and take away health care and food assistance from working Americans,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement. “The only thing that so-called work requirements accomplish is burying people with paperwork in order to deny them necessities like food and healthcare.”

McCarthy traveled to New York on Monday to talk up the emerging Republican plan, but more importantly, to blame Biden for the possibility of a federal debt default.

“The longer President Biden waits to be sensible to find an agreement, the more likely it becomes this administration will bumble into the first default in our nation’s history,” McCarthy said.

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