The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Republican plan to tighten food stamp work requirements is advancing — without a single Democrat’s vote

Members of the House Agriculture Committee, from left, Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), Rep. Tom O'Halleran (D-Ariz.), Chairman K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.), and Rep. Al Lawson  (D-Fla.) debate a controversial proposal included in the Republican Farm Bill on Wednesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

House Republicans pushed forward Wednesday with a plan to strengthen work requirements for food stamps, even as Democrats excoriated the proposal as an “ideological crusade” that would hurt the poor, burden state governments and endanger the passage of major food and farming legislation.

The plan, introduced last week as part of the 2018 Farm Bill, would dramatically expand mandatory state workfare programs in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, and require that most adults between 18 and 59 enroll or work at least part time to receive benefits.

GOP proposes stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients, a step toward a major overhaul of the social safety net

In a 26-to-2o vote on party lines, the House Agriculture Committee moved to advance the Farm Bill, with the SNAP proposals, to the House floor. Republicans have pitched it as a common-sense revision that would refocus services on the neediest families while providing opportunities for adults who are work-capable.

But over the course of more than five hours, Democrats on the usually placid committee denounced the Republican plan as “heartless” and “deceitful” and accused Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.) of shutting them out of negotiations.

Farm groups have begun to fear the divisions could delay or prevent passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, the $867 billion package that covers the bulk of the country’s agricultural and nutrition programs, including crop insurance, farm credit, trade, conservation, agricultural research and rural development.

“What are we doing here? Is this half-baked effort what passes for bipartisanship in our chamber?” asked Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), the ranking Democrat. “We used to be able to get stuff done, but the way the chairman has gone about this is turning friends into enemies.”

The current law expires Oct. 1, and a number of rural development and agricultural research programs will lose funding if a farm bill is not passed before then. The House likely will not vote until next month.

Both sides have indicated they are unwilling to negotiate on the Republican plan.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates more than 1 million people would leave the SNAP rolls over the next 10 years because of the new work requirements, mandating 20 hours a week of training or work, and stricter eligibility guidelines for low-income families who qualify for SNAP through other welfare programs, a practice known as Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility.

Republicans on Wednesday said their proposals would focus benefits on people who truly need them, eliminating payments to families with incomes significantly above the poverty threshold and helping work-capable adults find work and afford food for themselves.

“Today’s vote was about America’s farmers and ranchers. It was about a better future and greater opportunities for SNAP recipients,” Conaway said in a statement.

“I’m disappointed,” he continued, “that my Democrat colleagues have turned their backs on America’s heartland.”

But Democrats accuse Conaway of preparing the SNAP proposal in secret instead of allowing staff from both parties to hash out the issue together, as they did for the rest of the bill. The minority did not offer any amendments during the hearing because, Peterson told one farming talk show Monday, “you can't put lipstick on a pig.”

“This is the most partisan Farm Bill in 20 years,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who later tweeted that the proposal should be called the “#HarmBill.”

Democrats maintain that the SNAP program already contains sufficient work rules and that tightening them further may cut off adults who have legitimate reasons for not working.

They also argue that the $1 billion per year budgeted for the new mandatory employment and training programs would fall short. The mandatory program will also overburden poor families and state welfare offices, Democrats said.

In one tense exchange, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) peppered Conaway and Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), the chairman of the nutrition subcommittee, with questions about how many government employees would be needed to manage the workfare programs and how Republicans plan to track the employment status of all 42 million people on SNAP.

“If we had a hearing on this stuff we could go into this in more detail,” he said, as Thompson began to answer one of the questions. “But I only get five minutes.”

The Farm Bill now moves to the House floor, where the acrimony is likely to continue. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has championed the Republican food-stamp plan, which dovetails with his agenda to reform welfare programs.

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), meanwhile, said on Wednesday that her party could not support what she called a “radical, harmful bill.”

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