House Ag hearing dives into SNAP malfeasance

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, July 6, 2016 - A hearing of the House Agriculture Committee explored potential errors in policing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but some Democrats continue to question the motives of the panel's oversight.

The hearing was the 16th formal examination of the “Past, Present and Future of SNAP,” part of a “soup to nuts” review initiated last year by committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas. This particular hearing was focused on error rates and enforcement issues surrounding the program, issues that, depending on whom you ask, are either minimal or substantial.

Lets Talk Food

“In recent years, the SNAP error rate has been on a mostly downward trend and has reached all-time lows,” Kay Brown with the Government Accountability Office said at the hearing. “However, (the White House Office of Management and Budget) still considers SNAP a high-error program. Because it is so large, even a 3.7 percent error rate in 2014 resulted in $2.6 billion in improper payments.”

SNAP being a battleground issue is nothing new. Democrats - and many farm groups - were furious when nutrition programs were split off into separate legislation in 2013 farm bill deliberations (the nutrition title was eventually restored in the final farm bill after conference with the Senate). SNAP is easily the most expensive part of the farm bill and a substantial chunk of USDA's budget. This makes the program a frequent target of Republicans wanting to curb government spending and a key program to protect for Democrats.

That in mind, committee Democrats are worried that the committee's lengthy examination could lead to drastic changes in the next farm bill. Georgia Democrat David Scott went as far as to say that he thinks the “purpose of these hearings is to see if cutting the food stamp program is the answer to the issues of fraud and the error rates.” He suggested instead that the program may need more resources for better enforcement.

Still, lawmakers and witnesses at the hearing all seemed to agreed that issues of error and fraud weaken public confidence in the program and can be detrimental to its goals.

“Food stamp fraud hardens the hearts of good people and deafens their ears to the sound of hunger,” Dave Yost, Ohio's state auditor, testified at the hearing. “Every dollar wasted or fraudulently spent is a dollar that could be used for its intended purpose - to feed the poor.”

Yost primarily spoke about the results of an audit of usage data on Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, which recipients use to spend SNAP funds. He said the audit pointed to several “troubling findings” such as dead people receiving SNAP funds, excessive card balances, and numerous unusual activities such as perfect dollar amount withdrawals. He cited one case where a recipient made six purchases totaling $1,555 within one hour.

His comments led to a testy exchange with Ohio Democrat Marcia Fudge, who has spoken critically of the hearings in the past. She said Yost's findings did not support his claims of “millions of dollars” of fraud in Ohio's $2.5 billion SNAP program.

“You really have no basis to say that,” Fudge said, making the case that high card balances and out-of-state EBT card usage doesn't equate to fraud. She also asked Yost if his office had conducted similar reviews of other federal programs, specifically naming crop insurance. 

Yost disagreed, pointing to what he said were systemic issues that allowed for numerous improprieties involving EBT cards.

“Nobody's looking at this stuff,” he said.

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The hearing also touched on a number of potential fixes for enforcement issues, including possibly allowing states to target retailers suspected of SNAP fraud. Retailer fraud is currently handled by USDA while recipient fraud is left to the states.

Vocal opposition to the hearings from Democrats is nothing new, something Conaway alluded to in his closing comments.

“My colleagues from time to time on the other side of the aisle gripe about the number of hearings we've had,” he said. “This is $80 billion a year that we spend on this program, I think it's worthy of several hearings to understand what's going on, so I'm not embarrassed by it.

“Quite frankly,” he continued, “I have no way to compel them (Democratic lawmakers) to come to these hearings. They show up on their own, so if they don't like it, they can stay home.”

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Conaway didn't rule out further SNAP hearings, and he suggested that there could be more heated discussion “when we finish this series up and begin to look at ways to improve the program.”

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