WASHINGTON -- The debate in Congress over whether the United States should bomb Syria may be diverting attention from the economy at home. While the House and Senate hold hearings on authorizing military force, a bill that would cut food stamps is headed to the House floor next week with relatively little fanfare.
"There are 50 million people in the United States of America who are hungry, 17 million are kids," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said in an interview. "It is something we all should be ashamed of, and the United States House of Representatives is about to make that worse. This is a big deal and my hope is that we'll treat it as such and not just let it go by without a lot of discussion and debate because we're all focused on Syria."
Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the rate of "food insecurity" in American households remained constant from 2011 to 2012, with 15 percent of the population struggling to afford food at some point during the year. That's 47 million people, roughly the same amount as are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. Research shows that enrollment trends track economic conditions.
Next week the House will vote on legislation to cut SNAP by roughly 5 percent. The bill is bypassing the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees food stamps, because it is a priority of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
"There's not been a single hearing on food stamps at all. Not one," said McGovern, one of the panel's most outspoken opponents of cutting nutrition assistance. (The previous Congress, which wrapped up last year, held several hearings on nutrition legislation, though McGovern notes that the Agriculture Committee's membership has since changed.) "I hope through all this Syria stuff, that we're able to shed a bit of light on this, because I think most Americans, if they realize what's going on, would be outraged."
Whether they support cutting SNAP or not, Americans oppose launching airstrikes on Syria and would prefer that policymakers focus on domestic issues, especially the economy, according to several recent polls.
Despite the lack of hearings this year, many lawmakers will be at least somewhat familiar with the forthcoming food stamp legislation because it builds on the same provisions on which the House voted earlier this year, including one that would allow states to deny benefits to some unemployed SNAP applicants if they don't find jobs or enroll in training.
"By encouraging people to engage in job training or workfare we can help those in the program build the skills and gain the experience they need to become self-sufficient in the future," Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper said in an email. Responding to McGovern's comment about hungry children, he added: "We are protecting this program for those 17 million kids and those who need it most. That type of fear mongering has no place in this important debate."
In June, the House rejected a farm bill that would have partially reformed agriculture subsidies while cutting nutrition spending by more than $20 billion over 10 years. The bill failed, essentially because the cuts were too modest for Republicans but too harsh for Democrats. Republicans then passed a farm subsidies bill without Democratic support and are poised to pass a nutrition bill that will cut SNAP spending by $40 billion over 10 years. Cantor has taken control of the legislation from Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), who had sought to build bipartisan support for his version of the farm bill.
Another part of the new legislation would disallow states from granting exemptions to SNAP's work requirements for able-bodied adults without children, something most states currently do because so few jobs are available. The idea is catching on with state-level Republicans: Since the House GOP signaled its interest in killing the waivers, Kansas and Ohio have announced they'd let them lapse on their own (Oklahoma decided to drop waivers in the spring).
"Republicans are introducing $40 billion in cuts to SNAP, our nation's most effective anti-hunger program, and they're hoping that our attention is split and Congress is focusing only on Syria," Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), co-chair of the congressional Out of Poverty Caucus, said in an email. "We can and must also be working to come together and defeat this serious threat to our nation's most vulnerable."
Any bill passed by the House will have to be reconciled with the Senate's farm bill, which cut SNAP by a relatively modest $4 billion over 10 years. Regardless of the legislative outcome, the average family of four enrolled in SNAP will see its monthly benefit decline by $36 in November, thanks to the expiration of a boost to benefits from the 2009 stimulus bill, as there is little support for legislation to avert the upcoming drop.