Food Stamps Are Holding Up The Republican Agenda

The GOP is having a nasty family feud over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

WASHINGTON ― House Republicans had planned to finally introduce a budget Wednesday ― already months behind schedule ― but then announced they are punting to July because they can’t reach agreement on spending levels overall and cuts to food stamps specifically.

A further delay on a budget bill could forfeit much of the Republican agenda. They need the spending outline in order to be able to use a parliamentary procedure called “budget reconciliation,” which would allow them to do tax reform with only 50 votes in the Senate. So if they can’t agree on how much to cut food stamps, they won’t be able to cut taxes ― a priority for Republican leadership.

Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) is the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, which reauthorizes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program every five years as part of a farm bill that also includes agribusiness subsidies. For weeks, Conaway has been trying to prevent Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), chairwoman of the House Budget Committee, from including massive SNAP cuts in her budget. Black’s committee has been floating the prospect of significant spending reductions since May.

Conaway said Friday that they had a deal, though neither he nor Black would reveal any specifics.

“I will leave it to them to discuss the details of their budget when they are ready,” Conaway said in a statement. “What I will say is that I am very confident that the agreement we have reached will give the Agriculture Committee the flexibility it needs to craft a farm bill that works for all of our various stakeholders.”

If Conaway is on board, that suggests Black has agreed to relatively modest reductions to programs under the Agriculture Committee’s jurisdiction. She has been seeking $200 billion in cuts overall, which would be spread across an array of unspecified programs.

A spokesman for Black said only that the chairwoman is committed to getting a budget done next month. “It’s the strongest possible step to achieving real deficit reduction, strengthening our military and beginning the tax reform process,” Budget Committee spokesman William Allison said.

Conaway has been holding hearings for next year’s reauthorization since 2015 and has kept his policy plans a secret.

One reason Black would want to cut SNAP in her budget, aside from the fact that many Republicans consider cutting SNAP good policy, is that the reduced safety net spending can be used to offset the budgetary effect of other Republican priorities, such as more military spending and less taxes.

“Over the years, SNAP has essentially been an ATM machine for Republicans so they can pay for increases in defense spending and tax cuts,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told HuffPost.

About 42 million Americans receive SNAP benefits, down from a peak of 47 million in 2013. The aid can be used only to buy food at grocery stories and markets. Experts have credited it for helping eradicate starvation in the U.S., but the program, one of the federal government’s biggest safety nets, has nevertheless been a frequent target of Republican criticism. An overlooked detail is that SNAP spending has been declining and that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office expects enrollment to fall to 32 million by 2025.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, laid into Conaway this week for his refusal to go along with Black and the conservative House Freedom Caucus in their quest to cut food stamps.

“Chairman Conaway’s apparent unwillingness to cut a paltry amount of federal spending from his committee is a slap in the face to American taxpayers and jeopardizes historic tax reform,” Dan Holler, the vice president of Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the think tank, said in a statement.

In response, Conaway told reporters that he considered the people at Heritage “advocates for raising the cost of food for the most vulnerable in our society for years.”

The Trump administration earlier this year proposed a steep 27 percent cut to SNAP as part of an overall budget that would give states more freedom to set stringent eligibility standards. Such a policy would be similar to what House Republicans and President Bill Clinton did when they reformed Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1996, leaving the welfare program a shell of its former self.

“We believe that welfare reform should be part of any reconciliation instructions,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, told HuffPost on Monday.

Politico reported Thursday that moderate Republicans are strongly opposed to Black’s draft budget. The moderates could potentially prevent it from passing the House.

The House approved its Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill earlier this year only after party leaders caved to demands from the Freedom Caucus to make the bill more conservative. Going the conservative route on food stamps in 2013, however, didn’t work ― Republican leaders added a bunch of amendments on the House floor only to see their policy ideas thwarted when the House farm bill merged with the Senate version.

“I’ve been through the SNAP wars. It’s a painful process,” Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the former chairman of the Agriculture Committee, told HuffPost. “If you use [the Agriculture Committee] as a cash cow for something else, that won’t generate good policy.”

Matt Fuller contributed reporting.

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