WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) mocked Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday for trying to stop cuts to the nation's food stamp program, questioning the program's morality and saying that her type of thinking would bleed the treasury dry.
Gillibrand seeks to offer an amendment to restore $4.5 billion in aid for the hungry that the Senate's farm bill proposes to slash.
"The junior senator from New York proposes to increase food stamp spending even more than the current growth that we've seen, explaining, quote, food stamps are an extraordinary investment because every dollar that you put into the SNAP program, the food stamp program, you get out $1.71, close quote," Sessions said in a Senate floor speech.
He was referring to estimates touted by the Agriculture Department and Moody's economist Mark Zandi, who say that helping people feed themselves serves to stimulate a bad economy because the money goes to grocery stores, delivery companies and farmers, who in turn spend it back into the economy.
But Sessions mocked the idea, arguing that it would lead only to more spending.
"Under this reasoning, we ought to increase the food stamp program 10 times," Sessions said with incredulity. "Why not? We're going to get more money back. Somehow it's going to create more stimulus, and it's going to bring in more money for the treasury and make the economy grow. Why don't we just pay for your clothes, pay for your shoes, pay for your housing?"
He then suggested it would be immoral to follow that line of logic.
"It's precisely this kind of thinking that has bled our treasury of money that we need to pay for the demands that this country has. I also think it's a moral issue," Sessions said. "Is our national goal to place as many people on welfare, food stamp support, as we can possibly put on that program? Is that our goal? Is that a moral vision for the United States of America, just to see how many people we can place in a situation where they're dependent on the federal government for their food? I just ask that. I think we should wrestle with that question."
In a statement to The Huffington Post, Gillibrand said she was stunned that a colleague would suggest the moral course is to cut food aid at a time when the Congressional Budget Office estimates need will continue to grow through 2014 because of the lingering effects of the recession -- especially when the spending also boosts the economy.
"It is shocking as a mother and a lawmaker when clear facts about the return on investment is ignored, and cutting billions in food assistance for hungry kids is framed as being on the right side of a clear moral issue," Gillibrand said.
Still, Sessions insisted that the food stamp program is bloated and rife with fraud, and that it has become not a safety net, but a trap.
The Agriculture Department estimates the program has a fraud rate of about 1 percent. With food stamp spending approaching $80 billion a year, that means fraud accounts for less than $800 million. A number of provisions in the farm bill aim to reduce that amount.
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.