The Biden administration improperly increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits without filing a formal report to Congress first, the Government Accountability Office has decided.

The issue has to do with an update the Agriculture Department implemented to the Thrifty Food Plan, a compilation of food costs that is used to determine SNAP benefit levels.

A provision in the 2018 farm bill required USDA to update the TFP by 2022 and every five years thereafter. But the six-page GAO decision says USDA implemented the update in August 2021 without filing a report to Congress that is required under the Congressional Review Act for new agency rules. SNAP benefits increased last fall as a result of the TFP changes. 

The TFP update raised the monthly cost of food for a family of four by $145.19 to $836.57 in 2021 dollars.

USDA contends the update was exempt from the CRA reporting requirements in part because the update related to “agency management or personnel.” GAO said that only affects decisions that apply to “agency employees and not to outside parties."

It’s not clear what USDA or Congress will do about the decision by GAO, which is the watchdog arm of Congress. Lawmakers could introduce a resolution of disapproval to kill the update, but the measure couldn't pass either the Democratic-controlled House or Senate this year. The GAO decision was requested by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

At the very least, the decision could complicate the Senate’s consideration of the nomination of Stacy Dean to be the department’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. Dean oversaw the TFP action as deputy undersecretary for the USDA mission area.

Her selection as undersecretary was announced in May, but the Senate Agriculture Committee hasn’t acted on her nomination.

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USDA officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for a response to the decision. At the time the update was announced, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the benefit increase “an investment in our nation’s health, economy, and security.”

The top Republicans on the Senate and House Ag committees, Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas and Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, formally asked GAO last year to review the TFP.

“Without question, this review and update will have obvious and considerable impacts on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); while we expect this process will elicit an increase to the cost of the thrifty food plan—and subsequently monthly SNAP allotments—questions remain as to how the Department has gone about this review and update, including their methodologies,” the lawmakers wrote at the time. 

The GAO decision, dated July 28, was limited to whether USDA properly followed procedures in making the update.

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