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House Republicans Try to Fix Food Stamp Funding Cut Failure in 2014 Farm Bill

08:09AM Apr 18, 2014

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Congressional watchers expect no change from Senate following farm bill snafu

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

It is interesting to finally see the focus on real food stamp funding cuts after Republicans during the farm bill failed to give it adequate attention during a time when such cuts could have been realized.

Some House Republicans are pressing departing Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to rein in what they see as food stamp cheating by state governments.

Background: The around $8 billion that the 2014 Farm Bill was supposed to cut over ten years is evaporating because states have found a way to stymie a new "restriction" on food stamp eligibility in the nearly $1 trillion farm bill legislation. But sources say key Democrats in Congress knew what the states could and would do and told some of their Democratic colleagues during the key farm bill votes in both chambers. If so, Democrats outmaneuvered and were better negotiators on this matter. Of note, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the ranking member on the House Ag panel, wondered aloud when he told his staff that he questioned the billions of dollars in savings in food stamps projected by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). It would not be the first time in farm bill estimates that CBO missed the mark, perhaps by a lot.

For GOP damage control, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) wrote to Sebelius (link to letter) seeking answers about how the department administers the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and whether it can prevent states from "misusing" the program to get more food stamp dollars. Veteran congressional watchers wonder why Lucas and other Republicans, including their staffs, did not ask similar questions during the farm bill debate. Some conjecture that when CBO brought the $8 billion savings score to the farm bill leaders, they took it and ran on to other issues, namely safety-net programs for farmers. The Republican letter was also signed by House Agriculture Nutrition subcommittee Chairman Steve King (R-Iowa), and by Energy and Commerce Oversight subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-Pa.).

Could of, should of. The 2014 Farm Bill sought to save $8 billion in the food stamp program by limiting the ability of states to make people eligible for food stamp benefits by giving them LIHEAP money. Some state officials were reported to give as little as 10 cents per year in home heating aid just to automatically qualify recipients for food stamps. "Since enactment of the farm bill, several states have announced that they will take action to raise their minimal LIHEAP payment to $20 for the sole purpose of maintaining higher [food stamp] benefit levels," the GOP letter tells Sebelius. It adds that states' action could mean households in true need of home heating assistance are not given help. "If states are issuing LIHEAP payments to households with no out of pocket energy expenses, what action will HHS take to remedy the outcome?" the lawmakers ask.

The letter seeks a response from Sebelius by May 1. But Sebelius has a habit of ducking key questions – or responding in terms how Federal Reserve leaders used to speak.

A House of cards. While House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said the House will take up legislation to make more food stamp reforms this year, expect no similar action in the Senate. In fact, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said the GOP should realize that the government needs to do more, not less, to combat hunger.

This may not be the only multibillion-dollar "savings" miss via the 2014 Farm Bill. The legislation includes many opportunities for spending taxpayer money -- but on this count, farm-state lawmakers knew of that possibility and will send no letters if that were to occur.

Meanwhile, a farm policy veteran said, "They should have known that states were going to respond in the way they did. And if this wasn't going to generates savings, they should have looked at some other approach. And the Democrats should stop talking about total farm bill savings that won't now occur because of the states' changes."


NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.