WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2015 – At the beginning of his chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee, Mike Conaway promised a “soup to nuts” review of USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which accounts for the lion’s share of the department’s budget. At a committee hearing Wednesday, several panel Democrats seemed to have had enough.
The hearing, the 10th on SNAP (formerly food stamps) this year, was scheduled to address a report from the National Commission on Hunger. The NCH, which was formed by Congress, has spent a year and a half traveling across the country holding field hearings and site visits, and promises to put forward a report that “presents a full picture of hunger in America,” according to written testimony from NCH co-chairs Mariana Chilton and Robert Doar. The report was supposed to be finished in October and discussed at this hearing, but the NCH is still working on it.Since the report is not yet completed, Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern, the ranking member on the panel’s subcommittee on nutrition, said Wednesday’s hearing was “premature.” He said hunger is ultimately “a political condition,” and that he hopes hearings like this aren’t merely procedural theater.
“Too often when we have these debates, they end up turning into a session where people who are poor, who are struggling, are blamed and we’re not talking about developing a roadmap to end hunger,” McGovern said. “I hope that this hearing is not just a hearing to check the box, but I hope it’s a hearing that will actually begin to lay the groundwork for a wider discussion.”
About 80 percent of the funding in the 2014 farm bill goes to SNAP and other nutrition programs at USDA, an agency which is being targeted by some GOP lawmakers outside the committee for savings. In 2014, $74 billion in SNAP benefits were redeemed.
Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, took a much more pointed approach to the series of hearings. She used her allotted time to question what will ultimately come out of the sessions, which she called “an exercise in futility” and “a waste of our time if we are not going to do something about it.”
“I have no idea what the outcome or what we’re even looking to do,” Fudge said. “What I do know is that hunger is not a game. It is not something that we play with; it is life and death for far too many Americans.
“When are we going to stop talking and do something,” she continued. “We can talk forever and never change one person’s life. So the next hearing I want to go to about SNAP is how we’re going to make it better. I don’t want to hear anymore of this. Enough.”
The next speaker, California Republican Doug LaMalfa, said it is important for the committee to “have a dialogue about how we improve a system that is in place that is helping many” children, seniors and veterans. He also noted that it is important to make sure tax dollars are “stewarded carefully,” and that the program is administered properly.
In closing remarks, Conaway acknowledged that the committee’s review of the program has been lengthy, but he said it was “an appropriate look.”
“None of us have all the answers,” the Texas Republican said in reference to how to improve SNAP and ease the nation’s hunger problem. “I, for one, don’t know everything I need to know about it. Maybe there’s some folks on our panel who know everything about this issue; I don’t, and so that’s the rationale behind this long look.”
Conaway pointed out that at the hearings, both sides often lean to “extremes” and bring up people that obviously should or shouldn’t be enrolled in programs like SNAP, but noted, “There’s no one that would argue that we need more hunger in this country, and so we’re all against it.”
In an email, a committee spokeswoman told Agri-Pulse that the review of SNAP will continue in the new year, but the number and subject matter of those meetings depends upon what is learned at each hearing.
When pressed about the delay in the final report, Doar said the NCH is broad and bipartisan – the 10 commission members were nominated by Democratic and Republican party leadership in the House and Senate – and wants to produce a report with unanimous support.
“It’s a hard thing, reaching a unanimous conclusion, and that’s what was important to us,” he said. “We wanted to have this diverse group come together unanimously and endorse something that we all could stand behind, and that required some intense discussions and meetings.
“We had felt obligated to our customer, the Congress of the United States, to produce a report that we could be proud of and we didn’t get it done.” Doar, a former commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration, said the report could be expected in December.
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