Lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday on fraud in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program had widely divergent views on the extent of the problem, or even whether a hearing was warranted at all.

Republicans said they were concerned about the number of people receiving SNAP benefits – about 40 million – despite the growing economy and spoke up for provisions in the House farm bill that would tighten work requirements for able-bodied adults without children.

“We don’t want to cut benefits,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a member of the Freedom Caucus, said. “We just want to have a work requirement in place that doesn’t get waived” so that SNAP recipients are forced to work to receive “fellow American citizens’ hard-earned tax dollars.”

The hearing was held jointly by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s subcommittee on intergovernmental affairs and its subcommittee on healthcare, benefits and administrative rules. Jordan chairs the health care subcommittee.

Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., chairman of the intergovernmental affairs subcommittee, said he was sympathetic to the needs of people who cannot afford to feed themselves. “Make no mistake – our fellow Americans deserve help in times of need,” he said. “But fraud takes this assistance straight out of the hands of those who need it.”

But the question of just how much fraud exists in the program was not answered at the hearing. Jordan said he had “read something” about fraud accounting for 11 percent of total payments, which were about $63 billion in fiscal year 2017.

But Craig Gundersen, the Soybean Industry Endowed Professor in Agricultural Strategy at the University of Illinois, said that when looking at the cases defined as fraud by USDA, the rate is closer to 1 percent.

Gundersen said SNAP is a “model” program. “Maybe some other programs could learn from SNAP,” he said.

Democrats on the committee questioned the need for the hearing at all. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., ranking member of the intergovernmental affairs subcommittee, said the Pentagon is a better target for fraud.

“An internal report issued by the independent Defense Business Board found $125 billion in immediate savings would be available by cutting profligate spending and waste at the Pentagon,” Raskin said, a figure “almost twice the entire annual budget of SNAP.”

Rep. Bonnie Watson Colman, D-N.J., raised her voice to decry what she called Republicans’ lack of empathy for the poor. “My Republican colleagues and this Republican administration doesn’t give a good damn about the neediest in our country,” she said. “They give a damn about the 1 percent” at the top of the income scale.

Her vitriol prompted a reaction from Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., who called it “damn preposterous.”

Hearing witness Ann Coffey, USDA’s assistant inspector general for investigations, said in the past five years, the OIG had completed 857 SNAP investigations that have resulted in 2,302 indictments and 2,335 convictions. “During that time, our monetary results have totaled $463 million,” she said.

Tarren Bragdon, president and CEO of the Foundation for Government Accountability, pointed to USDA numbers on overpayments to estimate that annual overpayments in the program total more than $3.5 billion, which he said “no one should accept.”

And Tom Roth, a fraud investigator for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, outlined the types of fraud cases he sees in his state. “My point in providing you with a very brief overview of the type of fraud cases we work is to illustrate the fact that fraud exists and when you look for it, you find it."

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Roth also said that he had no way of quantifying the level of fraud in the program.

After the hearing, Palmer said it had nothing to do with promoting the SNAP provisions in the House farm bill that House and Senate negotiators are having trouble finding common ground on. “This was about how we eliminate fraud and improper payments,” he said.

"I hope that we can work with FNS (the Food and Nutrition Service) to eliminate as much as possible the fraud and improper payments," he said. In his opening comments, he was very critical of FNS for failing to institute recommended measures to address those problems.

In a statement provided to Agri-Pulse, an FNS spokesperson said, "FNS takes fraud very seriously. Since the early 1990s, using cutting-edge technology, USDA and partners reduced trafficking from 4 percent to approximately 1.5 percent. Most recipients and retailers play by the rules;  however, we acknowledge that there is more work to be done. The agency employs a multifaceted approach in working with its state partners to combat misuse of SNAP.

"State SNAP agencies have responsibility to identify and hold accountable recipients who break the rules," FNS said. "USDA is developing tools, providing technical assistance, and using regulatory changes to assist states in strengthening SNAP integrity. USDA will continue to identify ways to enhance integrity in these critical nutrition assistance benefits, now and into the future."

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