Congressional Republicans are weighing how to rein in the soaring cost of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and may use a recent Government Accountability Office report to argue for restricting how USDA determines future updates.
Maximum SNAP benefit levels are tied to an estimate of food costs determined by USDA in a model known as the Thrifty Food Plan. Republican leaders of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees say the GAO report shows USDA acted outside of its legal authority in an August 2021 TFP update that increased SNAP benefits by 21%. GAO says USDA failed to follow standard procedures in deciding on changes to the model.
The 2018 farm bill included a provision requiring USDA to reevaluate the TFP by 2022 and at five-year intervals thereafter.
Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson of Pennsylvania, who now chairs the House Ag Committee, and Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, the ranking member of the Senate Ag Committee, said in a December joint statement that the TFP update was “marred by egregious executive overreach, lacked an economic peer-review process, and included flawed — even legally questionable — decision-making.”
The Congressional Budget Office has sharply increased its cost estimates for SNAP in part because of the TFP update. CBO's most recent forecast of SNAP costs, issued in May 2022, estimates the program will cost taxpayers $107.5 billion in 2030. That is nearly $30 billion more than CBO had estimated for the program's 2030 cost in July 2021.
A Republican aide to the House Agriculture Committee says it would be hard to repeal the farm bill provision championed by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. But Republicans could seek to put restrictions on future TFP updates, including requiring them to be cost neutral, the aide says.
“I think words matter in legislative text, and I do think that they did sidestep what we did in the 2018 farm bill,” the GOP staffer said.
Jacqlyn Schneider, a former Senate Ag Committee aide who advised Stabenow on nutrition policy, said the TFP provision was intended to bring the SNAP program into the 21st Century. USDA’s proposal “closely mirrors” some of the ways Democrats wanted to adjust the SNAP benefits to better reflect consumption patterns and use by beneficiaries, said Schneider, now a partner at FGS Global.
“We went in with the intent of providing an opportunity for a major overhaul and set into motion the ability for USDA to continue to reevaluate the program regularly to take a look at how science and consumption patterns evolve,” Schneider said. “You might not actually need major overhauls if you’re doing it regularly, so that was part of our intent.”
Republicans’ response to the TFP increase and GAO’s report critical of USDA's process noted the historical departure of the cost-neutrality of updates compared to the new plan’s improved understanding of how consumers spend food dollars.
“We were very aware at the time that there was no legal requirement for it to be cost-neutral, and that was an administrative decision,” Schneider said of the provision.
At the time, Democrats didn't know whether a Democratic or GOP administration would oversee implementing the provision. Schneider said, “Our hope was that it would be an administration that also viewed the previous Thrifty Food Plan as out of date and in need of modernization in a way that quite honestly couldn't be cost neutral.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the agency stands firm on both the quality of its work and the difference it made in millions of people’s lives. “We owed it to the American people to get the re-evaluation done well and get it done quickly — and that’s exactly what we did,” Vilsack said.
One of the most important decisions USDA made that affected program costs was to change the source of food price data, the GAO report said. Prior TFP reviews used data from varying sources. The 2021 update used food price data collected from retail store scanners, the report said. USDA “did not provide support for their rationale,” GAO said.
Vilsack said USDA experts did review its process in determining a more accurate assessment of what truly occurs in terms of household food purchasing by using scanner information. Vilsack also said had USDA chosen the path GAO suggested in making changes to the calculation model of benefits, SNAP benefits would be “significantly higher” than their 21% increase.
Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director at the Food Research and Action Center, said the farm bill debate is coming when a “hunger cliff is hitting.”
The scheduled expiration next month of an emergency increase in SNAP benefits due to the COVID-19 emergency means the average SNAP participant will lose $82 per person per month, she said. The change will be even more pronounced for many elderly people who qualify for only the minimum SNAP benefit and can expect to go from receiving $281 per month down to $23.
Both Boozman and Thompson argued USDA’s actions reveal an agency and administration acting beyond their authority.
“This report shows the problems with this process are far greater than USDA merely cutting corners. It is evident that the department’s political leadership set out to achieve a predetermined outcome and purposefully ignored important steps in the process that would get in their way,” said Boozman. “This is the opposite of good governance, and it shows that poor decision-making happens when the administration operates in a vacuum without proper oversight.”
The House GOP aide told Agri-Pulse that this GAO report, and how it is reflective of USDA’s actions, will “linger in every conversation we have related to oversight,” which Thompson said will be a priority when he takes over the committee in 2023.
The aide claimed USDA’s actions tainted the role of the department in offering technical assistance in executing Congressional actions. “It … will always leave us second-guessing what the department’s telling us, and I think that’s hugely problematic because they are supposed to be nonpartisan and technical in their guidance.”
Schneider said she thinks USDA will always be a valuable technical resource for writing the farm bill, and historically the career staff at USDA do a “tremendous job of trying to provide honest assessments of where policy will go and what the implementation will be.”
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