It was unfortunate political timing for House Republicans: On Friday, as the Agriculture Committee was drafting budget-cutting legislation that could knock 295,000 people off food stamps, the Agriculture Department released findings that 529,000 more Americans went hungry last year than in 2003.
The juxtaposition neatly encapsulated the problems that Republicans will have this week and next when they try to put their rhetorical zeal for spending restraint into legislative action.
The Senate took up far-reaching legislation yesterday that would slice $39 billion over the next five years from a slew of entitlement programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, student loans and agriculture subsidies, while raising revenue by opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. A final vote is due Thursday.
The House will go further. Most likely by Thursday, the House Budget Committee will take up eight different bills from eight different committees saving at least $50 billion over five years. In so doing, the legislation will rewrite welfare laws, curb federal support of state child-support enforcement, reverse a court-mandated expansion of foster-care programs, and make significant changes to Medicaid, such as allowing states to add co-payments and premiums for families just above the poverty line. The full House is expected to take up the measure next week.
Even $50 billion is just a 0.6 percent nick out of the $7.8 trillion in federal entitlement spending expected over the next five years. At $844 million over five years, the embattled food-stamp cuts account for less than half a percent of the total food-stamp budget over that time, said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.).
But Democrats will emphasize that even that level of cuts will mean real pain for real people. And according to the Congressional Budget Office, neither the House nor the Senate bills will actually trim projected budget deficits, since they will be followed by a package of tax-cut extensions that would cost the Treasury $70 billion over five years.
Under complex congressional budget rules, the skids should be greased for passage. Since both the budget cuts and the tax cuts were mandated by a budget resolution, narrowly approved this spring, neither package can be filibustered in the Senate, so a simple 51-vote majority will do.
The Senate package is gaining kudos from some unlikely sources. Liberal budget and anti-poverty groups say the Senate budget-cutting legislation largely avoids cuts that will hit low-income beneficiaries, although they still oppose the bill because they say it will facilitate deeper, House-driven cuts. "We do need to commend the senators that worked hard to make sure [the measure] avoids these kind of cuts," said Deborah Stein, federal policy director of Voices for America's Children.
But final passage is anything but secure. House Republican moderates have grown increasingly queasy about what one of their leaders, Rep. Michael N. Castle (Del.), calls an unbalanced package, too weighted toward cutting programs for the poor. Before they take an organized stand, moderate Republicans will meet today with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) to discuss what will be in the tax-cut package that could follow as soon as two weeks from now, said Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.).
But they have not been shy about expressing their misgivings. Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) last week voted against the House Energy and Commerce Committee's piece of the bill, cutting Medicaid by $11 billion.
"I don't think it serves the people I came here to represent. I have told the leadership I am opposed," she said.
House United on Property Rights
House Republican leaders are touting another bill that will come to a vote this week, with a lot more support and a lot less controversy. The Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2005 emerged from the House Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support, uniting staunch conservatives with liberals such as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). The bill responds to a controversial Supreme Court ruling in June that affirmed the right of local governments to seize property for economic development, under eminent domain rules.
The House bill would prohibit state and local governments that receive federal economic development assistance from seizing private property for economic development purposes. Some Democrats argued that the legislation would give property owners too much power to halt development projects, but Waters actually tried, and failed, in committee to strengthen the bill by limiting the eminent domain rights of railroads, public utilities and other public facilities exempted from the bill.