Between the Rock and the Hard Place on the Child Nutrition Bill

The New York Times has come out in favor of the Senate’s bill to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act. It acknowledges that the House bill is considerably better — in part because it doesn’t make further cuts in the food stamp program to help offset the costs.

But, it says, “effective lawmakers know when it makes sense to stand and fight for principle and when the time comes to accept a decent compromise.” And that time for the House is now because unless it passes the Senate bill as-is, there won’t be a reauthorized Child Nutrition Act this year.

What it doesn’t say is that any expansion of the Child Nutrition Act could be up against more formidable barriers next year. What’s the hope for new spending on child hunger when Congressman John Boehner, possibly the next House Speaker, wants to roll back federal spending (except for defense, veterans and seniors) to the 2008 level?

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack seems to be of the mind that the administration ought to accept a bill that, in some manner, addresses the general priorities he sketched back in February. “What we don’t want to do,” he recently said, “is compromise what we can get today for what may or may not be available in 2013.”

Unclear whether the pay-for troubles him. After all, it originated in the White House, though not as an offset for the Child Nutrition Act. Certainly seems not to be troubling the First Lady.

Some major advocacy organizations are apparently also looking at the clock — and the elections polls. For example, Margo Wootan, Director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, now says the Senate bill is “terrific.” She’d earlier praised the stronger House bill as the best she’d ever seen.

Echoing Senator Blanche Lincoln, the primary author of the Senate bill, Wootan argues that if Congress doesn’t use food stamps to pay for it, it will use the money for something totally unrelated to better school meals for low-income kids. I would add better access as well.

I don’t know where to come out on this tough issue, though I know how I’m leaning.

On the one side, the House has had more than two months to come up with an offset package for its reauthorization bill and has thus far produced nothing — or at any rate, nothing final enough to be made public.

The Child Nutrition Act will technically expire at the end of the month. The House will recess then, and it will face must-do appropriations tasks when it reconvenes in November, as will the Senate. So if it doesn’t do something PDQ, we’re likely to have another extension of the current legislation.

Even if the Democrats retain control, passing the stronger House bill will be an uphill battle next year. And though the Senate bill falls short of what’s needed to make even a majority of children “healthy and hunger-free,” it’s considerably better than what we’ve got now.

On the other side, I’ve no doubt that the Food Research and Action Center is right when it says that using food stamp benefits to pay for the child nutrition bill “will make children hungrier.” And, as I’ve previously noted, food stamps aren’t for children only. The Senate bill will take food out of the mouths of poor adults too.

Looking beyond the hunger issues, the new Census poverty/income report tells us that 2.2 million fewer people would have been counted as poor if it had factored in the cash value of food stamps.

Mark Zandi, the Chief Economist at Moody’s Analytics, recently reconfirmed his firm’s earlier finding that food stamps deliver more “bang for the buck” than any other form of stimulus considered. Do we believe that the economy will improve so much in the next two years that a cutback in consumer demand won’t matter?

Maybe Lincoln and Wootan are right. If Congress doesn’t use the $2.2 billion food stamp reduction for the Child Nutrition bill, it will use it for something else.

But, as we’ve already seen, dipping into the food stamp budget can become as habit forming as, well, eating. If Congress does it twice, won’t it just be that much easier to do it again?

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