Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sparred with House Republicans over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in what could be the opening skirmish in a battle over potential program cuts as Congress considers a new farm bill.

In a marathon hearing before the House Agriculture Committee Tuesday, Vilsack cited research showing tightening SNAP work requirements would do little to help beneficiaries and flatly denied GOP claims that large numbers of SNAP beneficiaries were illegal immigrants. Benefits are only supposed to go to citizens and legal immigrants.

Vilsack also defended the department’s 2021 update to the Thrifty Food Plan, an assessment of eating costs, that has sharply increased benefits.

“Clearly it’s going to create some challenges” for needy people, Vilsack said of GOP proposals to tighten the existing SNAP work requirements. One proposal could affect an estimated 10 million adults or children, either by disqualifying them or reducing benefits.

“What we should be doing is working with states to improve the employment and training programs that we finance under SNAP,” Vilsack said. “We know that there are some states that do a particularly good job of helping able-bodied individuals who are capable of working to be able to find employment.”

Shortly before the hearing started, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy released a letter that called on President Joe Biden to support tightening work requirements in federal welfare programs. McCarthy didn’t mention SNAP specifically, but House Ag member Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., is pushing to expand the existing work rules to adults as old as 65 and to parents with children older than 6. Existing rules apply to adults up to 49 and exempt parents with children at home.

The top Democrat on the Ag Committee, David Scott of Georgia, singled out Johnson’s proposal for criticism at the beginning of the hearing. “I am very disturbed about the direction we’re going … with the farm bill,” Scott said.

Vilsack told Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., studies have shown that the able-bodied adults being targeted by work requirements were “mostly male, and they're mostly homeless, and they're mostly people with educational achievements that aren't quite as high as you would expect them to be.”

Johnson accused his Democratic critics of “fearmongering.” 

“No one who is pregnant would be denied benefits, no one with young dependents at home, no one who is disabled, no one who lives in an area with high unemployment,” he said. He noted states would continue to have the flexibility to exempt some people from the requirements.

Dusty_Johnson_House_Ag_32823.jpgRep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D.

Rep. Barry Moore, R-Ala., tangled with Vilsack over whether illegal immigrants were getting SNAP benefits. Vilsack insisted they aren’t allowed to, but Moore suggested as many as 5 million were, citing people who had applied for asylum after crossing the border. 

“We would know if there are 5 million” illegal immigrants getting SNAP, Vilsack told Moore.

Legal immigrants are eligible for benefits, including people who have been granted asylum or have refugee status.

Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., hasn’t taken a stand on whether work requirements should be modified, and he didn’t challenge Vilsack on the issue. Thompson did use his opening statement to say that USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan update was “expedited” and “shoddy.” 

During the hearing, Vilsack also fielded questions on issues ranging from disaster aid to rural broadband funding, the Environmental Protection Agency's pesticide regulation and foreign ownership of U.S. farmland. 

On the latter issue, Vilsack downplayed the significance of Chinese land ownership, reiterating that existing data show Chinese investors have purchased “less than 1% of 1%” of U.S. land. Still, he urged lawmakers to consider improving disclosure of foreign land purchases, stressing that USDA couldn’t investigate foreign buyers that failed to disclose purchases to the department.  

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He told Rep. Mark Alford, R-Mo., Congress should create a “clearinghouse” for agricultural land transactions, “some kind of way of basically making it easy for us to know precisely what's happening on a day-to-day basis.”

On other issues, 

  • Vilsack said the Biden administration couldn’t afford to let Mexico implement its ban on biotech corn. “This is a very important issue for us. We have to make sure that we are very firm about this, because it undermines our entire approach to trade. You have to have a science-based system,” he told Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb.
  • Vilsack expressed frustration with Brazil’s delay in reporting a case of atypical bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), but he warned against blocking beef exports, noting that the United States also has had atypical cases. “We have expressed concerns to Brazil about the lateness (of the notification). And we've also made sure that our surveillance at the border is as appropriate as it needs to be to protect our industry,” he told Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla.
  • Adequately compensating farmers for 2022 disaster losses will be difficult, Vilsack warned, since Congress provided just $3.4 billion for the payments, compared to the $10 billion appropriated for 2020 and 2021 losses.
  • On several concerns related to EPA pesticide regulations, Vilsack said the department had made its concerns known to EPA but couldn’t control what that agency would do. “Our job is to basically provide the information provided as best we can. … EPA makes the decision and then it's our job to figure out ways in which we can help farmers comply, if they can,” Vilsack told Rep. Tracey Mann, R-Kan. 
  • Vilsack said USDA should be added to the Committee on Foreign Investment of the United States (CFIUS), which reviews foreign investments that could potentially undermine U.S. security. “Being a permanent member would allow us the opportunity to educate the other members of CFIUS about what to look for and what to be sensitive to when it comes to agriculture and agricultural production,” he told Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark.

The hearing was Vilsack's first of three trips to Capitol Hill this week; he'll speak to the Senate Ag Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday and appear before the House Ag Appropriations Subcommittee Thursday.

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