Republicans Couldn't Cut Food Benefits With Legislation, But They Have A Backup Plan

The Trump administration wants to cut benefits for 755,000 people through regulation.

Republicans controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress last year, but they didn’t have enough votes in the Senate to cut food benefits for thousands of Americans.

Fortunately for Republicans, President Donald Trump is taking the proposals they couldn’t pass and sticking them in new regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. No Congress needed!

While they drafted the so-called farm bill, which included changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said he knew the Trump administration would find a way to cut benefits if Republicans couldn’t muster enough votes to do it themselves.

“I knew that would be a fallback position,” said Conaway, who chaired the House Agriculture Committee until this year. “If I couldn’t get it into law that we would do it in regulation.”

In December, the same day Trump signed the completed farm bill into law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed a regulation that would kick an estimated 755,000 Americans off the program by denying benefits to unemployed adults who don’t have disabilities or minor children.

The USDA-administered program, often known as food stamps, currently helps 37 million people in 19 million households buy groceries with a debit card that can only be used for food. Since its expansion in the late 20th century, the program helped eradicate starvation in the U.S.

Able-bodied adults without dependents are supposed to work or perform some other qualified activity 20 hours per week in order to receive benefits. Under current law, however, states are allowed to waive the requirement in areas that have above-average unemployment. Conaway wanted states to have less leeway, and the Trump administration’s regulation would do just that ― by limiting the waivers to areas where unemployment is at least 7 percent, the exact figure Conaway had proposed.

“We gave that to the secretary,” Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) said, referring to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “I had to count votes, okay?”

Roberts and Conaway said that Perdue’s USDA will likely propose more regulations based on other ideas that Republicans drafted but couldn’t get to the president’s desk.

On Wednesday, House Democrats held a hearing on the USDA’s proposed regulation, which they have said blatantly ignores the will of Congress. Experts testified that all the people affected by the rule would not be able to get jobs just because their food budgets had been slashed; they added that many of the affected individuals might have disabilities ― such as cognitive impairments ― that the government fails to recognize.

When they assumed control of the House in January, Democrats laid the groundwork for a legal challenge to the still-pending regulation. The USDA has said it wants the rule to take effect in October.

Secretary Perdue said in February that while the farm bill did not include the limitation on waivers, it “was not a prohibition” on the USDA limiting waivers, either.

Less than 3 percent of SNAP recipients who were able-bodied and didn’t have children worked less than 20 hours per week, and therefore would have faced sanctions had the regulation been in effect in 2017, according to Mathematica Policy Research. Fully 97 percent of those recipients lived in poverty, compared to 80 percent of the overall SNAP population. 

I expect that when we pass legislation here, that’s what the administration will follow. No one expected the administration to go against the will of Congress. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.)

Several Republicans on the joint House-Senate committee that negotiated the final version of the farm bill said Democrats were fully aware that the Trump administration would pick up the benefit cuts that were dropped from the bill.

In fact, during closed-door negotiations, Democrats even pointed to the Trump administration’s ability to write rules as a reason not to include the changes in the legislation, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) told HuffPost.

“They promoted that then, that we don’t need to make the [able-bodied adults without dependents] requirements because the secretary can do that, so therefore it’s a waste of time,” Yoho said. “Now that the secretary wants to do that, they’re saying, ‘Oh, this is terrible.’”

Fellow committee member Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) denied that Democrats in any way suggested it would be good to let the Trump administration make regulations out of the proposals they were specifically rejecting.

“I expect that when we pass legislation here, that’s what the administration will follow,” McGovern said. “No one expected the administration to go against the will of Congress.”