Food stamps: how House, Senate negotiators agreed to cut $800 million a year

The agreed-upon cuts to food stamps are significantly less than what the House had requested, but double what the Senate had proposed. The compromise could be introduced on the House floor Wednesday.

Mike Theiler/Reuters
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, joined fellow Democratic senators in making remarks on Capitol Hill in April 2011. Negotiators from the committee that Senator Stabenow chairs, along with House negotiators, have reached a bipartisan agreement on the long-overdue US farm bill.

House and Senate negotiators have reached an agreement on a new farm bill that includes a roughly $800 million reduction in annual food stamp funding, a 1 percent cut to the $80-billion-a-year program.

The 949-page agreement, announced on Monday by members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, comes after almost two years of congressional infighting over the $1 trillion farm bill, which outlines federal spending on a range of agricultural and nutritional issues over the next five years.

Much of the political sparring was over the depth and scope of proposed cuts to food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a program that has rounded out in recent years to include about 1 in 7 Americans. Republican lawmakers were pressing for cuts of no less than $40 billion over 10 years. President Obama and Senate Democrats voiced staunch opposition to such slashes, calling for a more modest trim of $4 billion over the same period. 

The compromise would cut $8 billion from food stamps over a decade and would do so without ousting any current enrollees from the program, committee members said. It also largely sidesteps Republican lawmakers’ demands to taper spending with tighter food stamp eligibility requirements, instead cutting funding through provisions to curb fraud.

The broad measure also includes an end to expensive and controversial direct payments to farmers and an expansion of government-backed crop insurance. Overall, the proposal trims federal spending by about $23 billion over the next 10 years.

The proposed food stamp cuts are coming at a time when more Americans are on food stamps than at almost any other time in the past decade. In fiscal year 2006, one year before the recession curdled the job market, the number of people on food stamps was about 26 million. As of July 2013, that number is 48 million. [Editor's note: The statistic for FY 2006 in the original version of this paragraph was incorrect.]

But how to interpret the surge in food stamp participation has been split along partisan lines. Republicans have said that the expanding program is flush with participants who are not in true need, but are rather taking advantage of loopholes or poor oversight. Democrats, though, have said that the program has burgeoned with people who have not yet found their footing after the recession jolted their communities.

In the new bipartisan agreement, the cuts to food stamps are just a fifth of those outlined in the Republican-controlled House’s farm bill, passed last summer. The House’s proposed $40 billion in cuts, to occur over 10 years, had fueled outcry from Democrats and anti-hunger advocates that some 4 million people would be booted out of the program, according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

The Democrat-controlled Senate’s version of the farm bill, also passed over the summer, would have shaved some $4 billion in funds from the food stamp program, ousting about 400,000 people, according to estimates from Feeding America.

Committee members said on Monday that the agreed-upon cuts to the program would save federal dollars without kicking any current recipients out of the program, largely by addressing areas of waste and fraud that some congressional members say have dogged the program for years.

Among the major cost-saving measures: closing a loophole that had allowed some states to reduce residents’ federal heating assistance benefits so they qualified for food stamps. Closing the loophole would reduce, but not entirely cut, benefits to some 850,000 households, according to CBO estimates.

The agreement also clamps down on people receiving benefits in multiple states or under a deceased person’s name, bans lottery winners or anyone who collects big gambling earnings, and prohibits the Department of Agriculture from using federal dollars to advertise the food stamp program and cull new recruits.

On the whole, the compromise dials back the strict food stamp eligibility requirements that the House had proposed in its bill. The House legislation would have required adults between 18 and 50 without dependents to be either employed or enrolled in a work-training program to collect benefits. It also would have allowed states to mandate drug testing for food stamp recipients.

But the agreement does take the food stamp program’s lifetime ban on convicted drug felons receiving benefits and extends it to include felons convicted of other, violent crimes, including murder and sexual assault – an amendment that anti-hunger advocates have called overly punitive and liable to send recidivism rates surging. The exclusion applies only to violent felons convicted after the act’s passage, so it would not throw current convicts out of the food stamp program.

The agreement also includes provisions for pilot work-eligibility programs, modeled on those outlined in the House bill, to be launched in up to 10 states.

There is still some question if the agreement – expected to be introduced on the House floor on Wednesday – will make it through both the House and the Senate.

Some Republicans on Monday signaled their intention to vote the agreement down, calling the trims to food stamp funding far too slight.

“I cannot march backwards and deliver more spending, more regulations and more waste," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas in a statement. "What we have today is a ballooning and expensive set of federal nutrition programs with a patchwork of eligibility standards, loopholes, and frankly unneeded give-a-ways to state governments."

In June, the House had voted down a version of the farm bill, backed by Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, that included $20 billion in cuts to food stamps, in favor of passing a bill with $40 billion in cuts. Speaker Boehner has expressed his support for the latest agreement, Politico reported.

Meanwhile, some Senate Democrats said the cuts went much too far.

"Only in Washington could a final bill that doubles the already egregious cuts to hungry families while somehow creating less total savings than originally proposed be called progress," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, according to The Washington Post.

Earlier this week, an analysis from The Associated Press and University of Kentucky economists found that the most rapid growth in enrollment in food stamps has centered on people with at least some college education – suggesting that higher education, the proverbial ticket above the poverty line, is no longer a guarantee.

The report also spotlighted the failure of wages to keep pace with inflation. Even as a once-dismal job market comes back and unemployment ebbs, employed Americans are still liable to remain highly dependent on food stamps, the report said.

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