Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is making a big mistake with his lawsuit against the federal government over drug testing food stamp recipients, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday.
"Gov. Walker hasn’t read the law," Vilsack told The Huffington Post in an interview. "It’s always a good idea before you start litigation to understand what the law is."
On Sunday, Walker signed a state law that would impose screening and drug tests on childless, able-bodied adults who want food stamps in Wisconsin. The USDA has long maintained that federal law doesn't allow states to drug test food stamp beneficiaries.
To get around the restriction, the new Wisconsin law also redefined food stamp beneficiaries as "welfare recipients," since the federal government does allow drug testing of some people on welfare. The Walker administration then sued the Agriculture Department in federal court to settle the matter.
"The law that authorizes and approves drug testing is for people who are receiving cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program," Vilsack said.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, colloquially named "welfare reform," created the TANF program and also tweaked some parts of what was then known as the Food Stamp Program. It contained a provision allowing states to conduct some drug testing of "welfare recipients," though the provision has long been understood to apply to people on TANF, not to people on SNAP.
In 2013, Republicans in Congress tried to change federal law to explicitly allow states to conduct food stamp drug testing, but Democrats managed to beat back the proposal.
"There is a clear distinction in the law between welfare recipients and public benefit recipients, and the distinction is important as it relates to the ability to drug test or provide additional burdens" on people seeking benefits, Vilsack said.
Vilsack wondered whether Walker, who announced his presidential candidacy on Monday, was more interested in fighting poverty in Wisconsin or winning over Republican primary voters in Iowa.
"You just wonder whether this is real or it’s politics," Vilsack said. "If it’s real, it’s unfortunate. If it’s politics, it’s even more so."
Roughly 46 million Americans receive SNAP benefits; TANF, by contrast, only serves about 4 million people, mostly single moms and their children.