What Will Happen to Food Stamp Benefits Now?

Ever since I read that the House Republican leadership might split the Farm Bill, I’ve wondered how that strategy would play out. Last week provided only a partial answer.

As you’ve probably read, the leadership managed to get enough Republicans on board to pass a bill with everything that had been in the version that went down to defeat, except the part that includes SNAP (the food stamp program).

The Tea Party types were apparently promised a chance to work their will on the missing part. House Majority Leader (and aspiring Speaker) Eric Cantor said his caucus will “act with dispatch.”

If/when it does, we’ll surely see a product that cuts SNAP more deeply than the nearly $21 billion that didn’t satisfy the far right-wingers before.

We need to recall that the House has repeatedly passed Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plans, which would convert SNAP to an under-funded block grant. The latest would leave states with about $135 billion less over the next 10 years.

A cut this big seems unlikely, as Erik Wasson at The Hill, reports. But he reminds us that the House Agriculture Committee proposed over $33 billion less for SNAP as its share of savings to replace sequestration.

In the meantime, we have what Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow has aptly called “a very … confusing situation.”

Ordinarily, House and Senate negotiators would work out a compromise between the bills their chambers had passed. But can they negotiate when the House Farm Bill has no nutrition part at all?

Technically they can, I’m told. And, of course, they won’t have to if House Republican leaders can actually swift a nutrition bill through.

Still, it was hard to see how they’d come up with a compromise when the proposed SNAP portions were so extremely different.

Now House negotiators know that a split-the-difference compromise between those versions — or anything like — wouldn’t satisfy the Republican majority. Doubtful they could get it anyway.

Senator Stabenow said that she and her colleagues would deal with whatever the House sent over. But she’d earlier drawn a pretty clear line in the sand when it came to SNAP cuts of the sort the House Agriculture Committee had come up with.

The White House had warned that the President would veto a Farm Bill with cuts like those. It’s since said that he would veto the amputated Farm Bill the House passed — in part because it fails to reauthorize the nutrition programs.

So much for a compromise (highly unlikely anyway) that deals only with the so-called “farm bill farm bill” and leaves the nutrition programs for another day.

I was initially inclined to think that what looks for all the world like a stalemate in the making was a good thing. “No bill is better than a bad bill,” as the saying goes. Now I’m not so sure.

Congressman Frank Lucas, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, says that liberals ought to be smiling because SNAP has thus far survived unscathed, implying that he’s far from confident of a House-Senate deal.

And, as he points out, the program is based on permanent legislation. So it won’t expire when the current Farm Bill does. But it will be only so many words on paper unless Congress funds it as part of the annual Department of Agriculture appropriations.

Zero-funding is highly improbable. But SNAP would be at high risk, as Bob Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, warned when the split solution emerged.

Basically, Republicans could say, well, the program hasn’t been reauthorized, so we can do whatever we want in the spending bill.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Association, which has its own beefs with the partial Farm Bill, thinks that Lucas hinted at this as the promised pay-off to House Republicans who’d earlier objected to the costly farm subsidies, as well as the (for them) insufficient SNAP cuts.

We’ve some clue of what might happen because SNAP was once before delinked from the rest of the programs the Farm Bill authorizes.

Back in 1996, the program was reauthorized for only two years, leaving it wide open to changes thereafter. Congress then folded new exclusions and restrictions into the same bill that gave us welfare reform, along with other provisions that reduced SNAP benefits for those still eligible.

“It took antihunger advocates years .. to claw back the benefits,” writes National Journal columnist Jerry Hagstrom. And unless I’m mistaken, they’re not all clawed back yet.

Some Congress-watchers think the whole House strategy will fall apart — unless, of course, its aim was simply to show that Boehner could get some sort of Farm Bill passed.

Unlike SNAP, the farm subsidies aren’t all permanent. They’ll expire unless Congress passes — and the President signs — a new Farm Bill by September 30.

Others will revert to the law that originally created them. Remember last year’s milk price scare?

So we may be looking at another Farm Bill extension — a good thing for the millions of low-income people who rely on SNAP to stave off hunger, but a fragile reprieve.

What’s sad is that our policymakers should have strengthened SNAP as part of the Farm Bill.

The Food Research and Action Center had a modest agenda. In a better world, we’d probably have seen its earlier recommendation that the basis for calculating SNAP benefits be changed so that families could afford to eat healthfully — and without running short at month’s end.

Now a Farm Bill that leaves SNAP as-is would be a significant victory. And even that seems a lot to hope for.

UPDATE: Shortly after I published this, I learned that Congressman Lucas had said he would not press for formal negotiations with Senate counterparts until the House had dealt with SNAP. He’d like to produce “some kind of consensus bill” within the next several weeks. Doesn’t sound hopeful.

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3 Responses to What Will Happen to Food Stamp Benefits Now?

  1. […] What’s next for SNAP? From Poverty and […]

  2. […] District and in communities nationwide. We would need them even if SNAP benefits were safe, which they aren’t, despite the likelihood that the Senate will reject the harsh, sweeping House […]

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