The Congressional Budget Office is raising its cost estimate for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by $93 billion over the next 10 years, or about 8.4%, due in part to expected benefit recalculations authorized by the 2018 farm bill.

The increased CBO estimate for SNAP will provide new fodder for congressional Republicans, who allege Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack mishandled a provision in the 2018 law — which called for a reconsideration of SNAP's benefit calculation — to increase SNAP benefits more than was justified.  

USDA was required to recalculate a formula used to set benefits known as the Thrifty Food Plan. Under the law, the recalculation is to happen every five years, with the first occurrence happening in 2021. The CBO estimate assumes additional increases in SNAP benefits because of future TFP modifications. 

The Thrifty Food Plain is supposed to reflect the cost of a healthy diet for a budget-conscious family.

The Senate Agriculture Committee's top Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, said in a statement that the CBO forecast "shows that the Biden administration’s improper sloppy reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan will continue to dramatically increase SNAP spending during the span of the next farm bill and drives the cost of the legislation to record heights."

He and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., had said a Government Accountability Office report released in December showed the process USDA used for modifying the TFP in 2021 was “marred by egregious executive overreach” and legally questionable decision making.

CBO's last forecast of SNAP spending, issued in May 2022, estimated the program would cost taxpayers $1.1 trillion from 2023 through 2032, or more than 80% of total farm bill spending. The new estimate, which also reflects an expected increase in the number of SNAP recipients, adds $93 billion to the May 2022 estimate.

The new forecast is certain to be an issue in a hearing Thursday the Senate Agriculture Committee will hold with Stacy Dean, USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. Dean led the department’s work on the TFP update in 2021.

President Joe Biden nominated Dean last May to be undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, but she never got a hearing before the Ag Committee amid GOP anger about her management of the TFP update. Biden renominated Dean in January.

The higher CBO estimate could put a bigger target on SNAP in the coming farm bill debate. 

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., suggested this week that Republicans may focus on SNAP work requirements, which were a subject of controversy in debates over the 2014 and 2018 farm bills. 

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has defended his department's management of the TFP update, saying the benefit increase would have been even higher if USDA had conducted the reassessment the way GAO suggested in its December report. 

One of the most important decisions USDA made that drove the benefit increase was to change the source of food price data, according to GAO. Prior TFP reviews used data from varying sources. The 2021 update used food price data collected from retail store scanners. 

When the 2018 farm bill was passed, CBO didn't project any increase in costs as a result of the provision requiring TFP updates. 

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