Senate passes farm bill, stage set for debate over SNAP cuts

by Jay Sjerven
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The U.S. Senate on June 10 approved the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 by a vote of 66 to 27. The five-year farm bill aimed to reform the nation’s farm support and conservation programs, eliminate waste and abuse in federal nutrition assistance and trim more than $24 billion in spending over 10 years compared with the current farm act. The House of Representatives was expected to begin debate on its farm bill, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act, during the week of June 17, according to House leaders.

Should the House succeed in passing its farm bill in the next few weeks, Senate and House negotiators will confer to hammer out differences between the two bills with the aim of crafting a common bill that may be submitted to the House and Senate for final votes. Leaders of both the House and Senate said they hoped to send a farm bill to the president before the August congressional recess.

Conferees will have no greater task than to reconcile the different approaches to reducing spending on nutrition assistance as reflected in the Senate bill and the farm bill passed by the House Committee on Agriculture and set to be brought to the House floor. The outcome of the negotiation may have ripple effects across food industries and the overall economy.

Both the Senate bill as passed and the House bill as proposed would cut spending on the nation’s principal domestic food assistance program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but by vastly different amounts. The Senate bill would reduce spending on SNAP by about $4 billion over 10 years. The House bill would go much further and reduce spending on SNAP by about $21 billion during the same span.

Whatever spending cuts ultimately are agreed to by the Senate and the House, they will come on top of an across-the-board cut in SNAP benefits estimated at $20 to $25 a month for a family of three that will take place on Nov. 1, 2013, when the enhanced SNAP benefits authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 expire on Oct. 31.

What’s old is new

The Senate bill was similar in all major respects to the farm legislation passed by the body at about the same time last year. That bill never went to conference because the leadership of the House failed to bring the farm bill passed by the House agriculture committee to the House floor for a vote. As a result, the current farm law, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, which officially expired last year, was extended through Sept. 30, 2013.

With so much of the work done in 2012, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry was able to expedite consideration of the farm legislation in the current session.

Senators on both sides of the aisle acknowledged the bill was the product of a bipartisan effort. But senators with particular dedication to preserving and even expanding federal nutrition programs lamented the cuts proposed for SNAP. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, former chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, voted for what he called “a strong bipartisan bill.” At the same time, Senator Harkin said, “I regret, however, that this legislation reduces funding for nutrition assistance to low-income Americans and will work to mitigate cuts to nutrition assistance programs as the legislative process moves forward.”

The Senate bill sought to achieve savings in SNAP spending by addressing what it asserted was “fraud and abuse” in parts of the program. Specifically, the Senate bill would prevent lottery winners from receiving food assistance and college students from misusing benefits. Of greater import, it would stop states from issuing extremely low Low-Income House Energy Assistance Program payments to qualify households to receive Standard Utility Allowances for the sole purpose of increasing their SNAP benefits.

The Senate said the provision would not affect households that are able to demonstrate a utility cost, but this would be problematic for households whose utility costs are included in their rental payments). It was estimated about 400,000 households would see their SNAP benefits reduced by an average of $90 per month because of the provision.

The bill also aimed to crack down on trafficking of foodassistance benefits, required participating retailers to stock more staple foods like fruits and vegetables, and preserved nutrition education funding.

Reviewing the House version

The House farm bill’s cut to SNAP spending, at $21 billion over 10 years, would be $4 billion larger than the legislation approved by the House agriculture committee in 2012. Like the Senate bill, the House bill, too, targeted extremely low LIHEAP payments used by some states to help qualify some households for larger SNAP benefits. But the House bill would go beyond what the Senate sought with regard to reining in this practice with the result that an estimated 850,000 households, or about 1.7 million individuals in 15 states, would lose an average of $90 per month in benefits.

The lion’s share of the spending cuts the House bill would implement ($11.6 billion of the proposed $21 billion in cuts) would come from the ending of the “categorical eligibility” option used by more than 40 states to align their SNAP gross income eligibility limit and asset tests with the eligibility rules they use in programs financed under their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grants. The 1996 welfare law allowed for the use of the categorical eligibility option at the discretion of the states. The reasons states employ the categorical eligibility option is to align program rules, simplify programs, reduce administrative costs and broaden SNAP eligibility to certain families in need, primarily low-wage working families.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that eliminating categorical eligibility would eliminate food assistance to about 1.8 million low-income people, mostly seniors or low-income working people with children.

There would be additional fallout from such cuts. The C.B.O. estimated that 210,000 children whose eligibility for free school meals is tied to their family’s receipt of SNAP benefits would be disqualified from receiving free school meals when their families lose those SNAP benefits.

The House bill also would cut funding for nutrition education.

Nutrition program champions in the House vowed to fight the proposed cuts to SNAP. Representative James P. McGovern of Massachusetts said on the House floor on June 5, “The truth is SNAP works. Food assistance works. People on food assistance are able to feed themselves and their families. They’re able to use money they might have had to use for food for other purposes — rent, utilities, medical costs, school supplies for their kids, and transportation costs, just to name a few.”

It seemed likely the proposed cuts to SNAP will survive a vote in the House, which would shift the debate over the extent of cuts to SNAP to a conference committee, if and when it meets.

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