WASHINGTON -- The Republican Party's new point man on food stamps, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), insists that he doesn't want to cut nutrition assistance benefits. Instead, Conaway is leading a multiyear review of the program, just to make sure it's the best it can be.
But it might not be up to Conaway. Republicans could push food stamp cuts this year through a parliamentary process known as "reconciliation."
The GOP has discussed using reconciliation as a way to repeal Obamacare or to do tax reform. Now, some Democrats and food stamp advocates are warning that the Republican-controlled Congress could use the obscure budget maneuver to reduce food stamp assistance.
Here's how it could happen: When Congress passes a budget resolution, as it is expected to do this spring, it sets spending levels for various federal agencies. Through what are known as reconciliation instructions, budget committee leaders can then instruct the committees overseeing those agencies to meet specified spending limits. So, in theory, the House and Senate budget committees could tell their respective agriculture committees to reduce spending by a certain percentage, and the committees would have to do it.
A coalition of nearly 400 food banks, labor groups and farm industry advocacy groups recently set a letter to top lawmakers on budget committees expressing concern that U.S. Department of Agriculture initiatives -- including crop insurance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps -- could get whacked through reconciliation.
In 2014, Congress overhauled federal nutrition assistance and agribusiness subsidies in a piece of legislation called a "farm bill" that was supposed to set agricultural policy for five years. The bill reduced overall federal spending on agriculture and nutrition programs by about 3 percent.
"These difficult cuts were made across the farm safety net, conservation programs, and nutrition programs," says the Feb. 23 letter from a range of groups, including the AARP, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Bay Area Food Bank.
"The policy changes and reforms associated with these cuts are only now being fully implemented by the United States Department of Agriculture," the letter continues. "As such, no additional cuts to these programs should be considered, at least until these policies have time to take place and be thoroughly evaluated."
For Republicans, the advantage of the reconciliation process is that it could get through the Senate with a simple majority, meaning Democrats would be unable to filibuster. But it is extremely unlikely that a budget bill dismantling Obamacare would be able to avoid the president's veto, so cuts to food stamps are entirely theoretical at this point.
Still, the possibility of a reconciliation bill is on the radar. Last month, Conaway, who recently became chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, and the committee's top Democrat asked in a joint letter to House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.), that programs reauthorized in the farm bill be left alone. The request suggested that the agriculture committee is worried that the budget committee might mandate further cuts through a reconciliation directive.
A spokesman for Price told The Huffington Post only that Republicans are working on their budget bill.
"You can see a scenario where SNAP gets the disproportionate amount of cuts in any kind of reconciliation," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the agriculture committee's most vocal defender of food stamps, said in an interview. "There are members in the majority here who do not like the program, do not understand the program, and are trying to find ways to get rid of it."
Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal D.C. think tank that opposes food stamp cuts, told HuffPost this week he thought the budget committees would be a likelier source of near-term policy changes than Conaway's review of nutrition assistance.
"I think there's a good chance that the Republican budget resolution that's adopted in April will have reconciliation instructions to the agriculture committee with the assumption that there's cuts in SNAP," Greenstein said.
"I think the chances are better than 50-50," Farm Bureau lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher agreed.