House Republicans narrowly approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food stamp program Thursday that would slash about $39 billion in funding over the next decade, cut aid to about 4 million Americans in the next few years and shift the burden of providing aid to some of the nation’s poor to state governments.
The GOP-backed plan differs sharply from a bipartisan Senate proposal passed in June, and its passage will further strain relations between the two chambers as they spend the next several weeks toiling over a short-term budget deal and negotiating over raising the federal debt limit.
As those battles begin, Thursday’s vote is a victory for House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), who orchestrated a strategy this summer to split apart the farm bill to consider funding for food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, separately from legislation authorizing crop subsidies and an overhaul of many agricultural and conservation programs.
Cantor said the deep cuts enacted Thursday were necessary because while most SNAP recipients need the assistance, there are too many people “that choose to abuse the system.”
“Frankly it’s wrong for hard-working middle-class Americans to pay for that,” Cantor said.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a strong supporter of the bill, said that stiffer work requirements for certain adults applying for SNAP funds mean “you can no longer sit on your couch…and expect the federal taxpayer to feed you.”
The House voted 217 to 210, with all members of the Democratic caucus present voting against the plan. The House can now begin long-delayed negotiations with the Senate over a final version of the farm bill, which would once again merge food aid with other agricultural policy.
But in a rambling speech on the Senate floor Thursday morning, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) slammed the GOP strategy, saying that Republicans have “turned their backs” on low-income families in hopes of making budget cuts. Citing his frequent trips to the grocery store with his wife, Landra, Reid said that proposed cuts in SNAP funding would make it difficult for some recipients to buy hamburger meat and milk in the same shopping trip.
In the House, Democrats used the hours before the vote to criticize Republicans for stripping SNAP recipients of their aid. They repeatedly cited an op-ed by former Senate majority leaders Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Robert Dole (R-Kan.) published Monday in the Los Angeles Times who argued that “this is no time to play politics with hunger.”
Brandishing a cooked steak, bottle of vodka and can of caviar on the House floor, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) suggested that money spent by lawmakers on official overseas travel could easily help pay for food stamps for the hungry. One lawmaker received more than $3,500 to spend on food and lodging during a six-day trip to Russia — roughly equal to a year’s worth of SNAP funding for some recipients, she said.
The House bill would cut overall SNAP spending by slightly more than five percent over the next decade, largely through two provisions that would significantly affect states.
The first reinstates restrictions on many able-bodied, childless adults aged 18 to 50 who receive SNAP benefits. It accounts for roughly half the cuts. Under those limits, 1.7 million people would lose benefits next year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported on Monday. Under federal law, those able-bodied adults may collect only limited benefits — up to three months over a three-year period — unless they work more than 20 hours per week or are in a job-training program.