WASHINGTON, March 5, 2017 – The Republican speaker of the House is committed to reforming welfare programs – including food assistance – to fulfill a campaign promise. But farm-state lawmakers are worried about holding together a fragile urban-rural coalition long seen critical to passing a new farm bill.
That could be 2017, but actually that was 1995. The House speaker was Newt Gingrich, and he was committed to carrying out the GOP’s 1994 campaign agenda, the “Contract with America.” One of the Republicans’ promises was to turn the food stamp program over to the states by converting it into block grants.
Gingrich immediately ran into opposition within his own party – lawmakers from farm districts – including members of the House Agriculture Committee, who were intent on maintaining the longstanding political ties between farm and nutrition programs and their supporters. In early March 1995, facing that wall of resistance to block grants, the House Agriculture Committee marked up a food stamp reform that would tighten eligibility and add new anti-fraud measures – but leave the program under the federal bill agenda
“We made a decision to keep it (the food stamp program) at the federal level but to reform it,’ the committee’s then-chairman, Pat Roberts, R-Kan., announced as the panel prepared to vote on the bill.
Gingrich would continue to push the block-grant idea over the following months, but that early test demonstrated the power of the farm-and-food-stamp coalition first forged in 1973.
The coalition would pay off in a big way for both farm and anti-hunger groups when successive farm bills in 2002 and 2008 would expand food-stamp eligibility and attract the Democratic support needed to pass agricultural programs.
“It’s worked,” former Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., says of the farm-nutrition coalition that he helped forge for the first time in the 1973 farm bill. “People have benefited from the food program, people who needed it … and farmers, and not all farmers are rich, have benefited from the farm programs.”
The history of food stamps and the farm bill provides several lessons:
- The combination of the two has led to expansions, and averted cuts, in nutrition assistance that likely wouldn’t have been achieved otherwise;
- Having food stamps in the farm bill has created a place for creating or showing significant overall savings in farm bill spending, not just when the program is cut but also when a strong economy is reducing enrollment;
- The Senate and House Agriculture committees in charge of food stamps ensures that farm groups have a stake in how the program operates. A series of House Agriculture Committee hearings over the past two years focused attention not only on the program’s broad support but also on a number of innovative efforts to improve the lives of recipients.
- And, yes, the combination has generated votes for both farm and nutrition programs that might otherwise not have been there.
But even as the cost of the SNAP program is once again on the decline (see chart below), the farm-nutrition coalition is about to be tested again.
Supporters of food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are worried that the House and Senate Budget Committees will propose a new round of cuts in farm bill spending, including nutrition. And House Speaker Paul Ryan, a longtime advocate for reducing the federal deficit by block-granting SNAP, has proposed a sweeping overhaul of all federal welfare programs.
At the same time, conservative groups led by the Heritage Foundation and its advocacy arm, Heritage Action, are pushing Congress to strip the nutrition title from the farm bill on the theory that it will finally be easier to slash both farm programs and SNAP.
“If they split the nutrition title from the farm bill, I’m willing to bet my house that there will be no farm bill,” said Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture’s subcommittee on nutrition.
House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has been warning agribusiness groups that he expects SNAP to get caught up in new welfare reform effort Ryan plans for next year, even as lawmakers try to write a new farm bill. The 2014 farm bill expires in the fall of 2018. What that means for the farm bill is not clear. Conaway says he isn’t sure whether that welfare reform plan will be relatively narrow in focus, unlike what eventually passed in 1996.
Meanwhile, in a new attempt by the farm-food coalition to flex its muscles, more than 500 national, state and local farm, conservation and nutrition organizations signed a Feb. 21 letter urging the House and Senate budget committees not to propose cuts in any farm bill programs, including SNAP.
“With the agriculture and rural economy struggling, and households across the country struggling to meet their basic needs for nutrition, and farm income down 46 percent from only three years ago, it would be perilous to hinder development and passage of the 2018 farm bill with further cuts,” the letter says.
Unlikely partners and a common goal: Put ‘an end to hunger’
SNAP has its roots in the Depression. Under Franklin Roosevelt’s first agriculture secretary, Henry Wallace, USDA allowed needy people to buy two types of stamps for about four years. Orange stamps, like today’s SNAP benefits, could be used to buy any type of food. For every $1 worth of orange stamps that were purchased, people also received 50 cents worth of blue stamps, which would be used to purchase food that the department deemed to be in surplus. At its peak the program served 4 million people at a time.
In the 1960s, with Democrats back in the White House, President John F. Kennedy created a pilot food stamp program that would expand to 40 counties and the cities of Detroit, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson asked Congress to write the program into law in 1964. By the early 1970s, it had become a national program but not every county offered the benefits. And in many places, food assistance was supplied through commodities, rather than food stamps, which allowed recipients to buy any food they wanted.
By that point, hunger had become a national political issue, thanks in part to a stunning CBS documentary in 1968, Hunger in America, which opened with a baby boy who was dying of starvation. “He was an American,” intoned host Charles Kuralt. “Now, he’s dead.” A year later, President Richard Nixon convened the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health.
In a speech opening the conference, Nixon said the event was an “historic milestone” that “set the seal of urgency on our national commitment to put an end to hunger and malnutrition due to poverty in America. At the same time, it marks the beginning of a new, more determined and more concerted drive than ever before, to reduce the malnutrition that derives from ignorance or inadvertence.”
Nixon went on to say that the food stamp program – as it then existed – was “shot through with inequities, notably, that many counties have not participated, and the fact that because food stamps had to be bought with cash, many of the neediest were unable to participate.” (At the time, food stamp recipients had to pay a fee to get the benefits, a requirement that would last until the 1977 farm bill.)
Four years later, with Congress due to write a new farm bill, lawmakers took the decisive and historic step of marrying food stamps with the farm bill. In part, joining nutrition assistance with farm programs just made logical sense, but there was also a political motive – to ensure broader support for farm bills, said Marshall Matz, who at the time was an aide to the Senate’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which had been formed in 1968.
The 1973 farm bill required states to expand the food stamp program to every political jurisdiction in the country by July 1974. The bill also expanded the program to drug addicts and alcoholics, set up a process for adjusting allotments on a semi-annual basis and required the department to establish temporary eligibility standards for disasters. A 2016 study of adults whose families were on food stamps during the 1960s and early 1970s turned out to be significantly healthier in middle age than children of low-income families who didn't participate in the program during that period when it not yet been implemented nationwide.
Dole, who had been elected to the Senate in 1968, said the idea of putting the food stamp program in the farm bill had been kicking around for several years, but it became more urgent as farm-state lawmakers worried that the urbanization of America was making it more and more difficult to pass farm bills in the House. In 1950, 36 percent of Americans still lived in rural areas. By 1970, the rural share of the population had fallen to 26 percent.
“We could pass it through the Senate because almost every senator represented farmers,” Dole, now 93, said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. “When you got to the House you had so many city representatives, whether it’s New York or L.A. or any big city,” and for many of them, voting against the farm bill was “their one conservative vote,” Dole said.
“We needed both programs, so why not put them together? …. Sometimes you do things to get things done, and this was done on a bipartisan basis.”
The marriage of farm programs and food stamps would pay off big when the farm bill came up for renewal in 1977. Dole would play a critical role, too, as a Republican farm-state champion of the program. After Nixon resigned in 1974, President Gerald Ford almost immediately tried to cut the program, with support from conservatives in Congress.
But Dole began working some of his Democratic colleagues, George McGovern of South Dakota and Humbert Humphrey of Minnesota, on liberalizing the rules to make it easier for the needy to get food stamps, in part by ending the requirement that recipients pay for the benefits. The first Dole-McGovern food-stamp reform bill, introduced in 1975, never went anywhere. But Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, and the Dole-McGovern proposals made it into the farm bill Congress would pass later that year.
At the time, a family of four with a net income of $350 a month would have to pay $95 to get a monthly allotment of food stamps worth $166. With the farm bill pending in 1977, McGovern and Humphrey wrote Carter – appealing to him to support ending the purchase requirement so that recipients could receive the net value of the food stamps without money changing hands. The change would simplify the program while also ensuring that poor people who “can’t afford to ‘buy in’ to participate” in food stamps for the first time, the senators wrote.
The requirement probably wouldn’t have passed unless food stamps had been part of the farm bill, according to Matz as well as Robert Greenstein, who was director of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service at the time.
In addition to eliminating the purchase requirement, the 1977 farm bill also established outreach efforts to promote the program and set new eligibility rules, including categories of income that could be excluded from eligibility calculations. It also got rid of requirements that households have cooking facilities and that stores must sell a significant amount of staple foods in order to qualify for accepting food stamps.
For the farm-food coalition, that year was historic for another reason as well: The Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which McGovern had chaired since 1968, was folded into the Senate Agriculture Committee in 1977.
The new committee became known as the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, its name to this day. The chairman is a senator from Kansas, Pat Roberts.
The coalition’s ‘Contract’ crisis in 1996
By the middle of the 1990s, spending on food stamps and welfare programs was rising sharply even though the nation had recovered from a deep recession that had helped Bill Clinton win the White House. At the same time, there were reports of scandals in food stamps as well as the country’s main welfare program at the time, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Participation in food stamps ballooned from 18.8 million people in 1989 to 27.5 million in 1994, and the cost of the program nearly doubled over that period to $24.5 billion. AFDC spending, meanwhile, hit $22.8 billion in 1994, up from $17.5 billion five years earlier, and participation had grown from less than 11 million to more than 14 million.
Clinton campaigned in 1992 on welfare reform, but the issue went nowhere until Republicans won control of both the House and Senate in 1994. Led by Gingrich, House Republicans immediately began carrying out the campaign promises they made in the Contract With America. Gingrich’s plan was to radically downsize both AFDC, food stamps and other welfare programs. The overhaul of food stamps was to be carried outside the farm bill – the normal way of altering the program since 1973 – and the program was to be converted into block-grants so that states could run the program as they saw fit.
The idea of block-granting the program quickly ran into opposition from farm-district Republicans as well as Democrats. By late February, as the House Agriculture Committee prepared to vote on the food stamp provisions of the broader welfare reform effort, Republicans dropped the idea of block grants.
Roberts, now the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, says the block-grant idea raised several concerns. For one, it would remove the program from the Agriculture committees’ jurisdiction and make it harder for them to find the savings necessary to reach the targets set by the GOP. And, he says, there were also concerns about allowing states to run the program on their own. “If we block grant it to the states, it will be a hodge-podge of different kinds of things that would be available in each state, so we’d probably have people moving wherever the food stamps were,” he said in a recent interview.
Newspaper columnist Carl Rowan was among those celebrating the Agriculture committee’s opposition to block grants. Gingrich “hit a speed bump bigger than a month-old bagel, when it comes to plans to wipe out the federal food-stamp program,” he wrote.
“It is not that the 27 million poor people who eat off this $23-billion-a-year program have yet staged a violent revolution; it is that the farmers, supermarket chains, bakers and bottlers of soda pop have cried 'Foul!' They want no part of a scheme to abolish the food-stamp and other nutrition programs and fight hunger by substituting block grants to states.”
In the end, Congress passed the 1996 farm bill, which re-authorized food stamps for two years, and later in the year agreed with Clinton on a sweeping welfare reform bill, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act. The block-grant idea was gone –
Clinton had vetoed an earlier version that contained it – but the legislation made substantial reforms to food stamps that would slash participation to 17.8 million people in just two years. That was a stunning reduction of 10 million people from the 1994 enrollment.
Among other things, the bill eliminated eligibility for most legal immigrants, reduced the maximum allotments, required states to start providing the benefits via electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards by 2002, and set a limit for how long able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) could receive benefits.
Despite the cuts, the welfare reform bill left food stamps as the foundational federal welfare program. AFDC, unlike food stamps, was converted to block grants and renamed Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
Roberts also argues that the reforms shored up public support for food stamps. “We did it in a way that it did not look like we were trying to be unfair to the people on food stamps,” Roberts said. “We were in fact saving them on a federal level (by killing the block-grant proposal) “but at the same time achieving reform.”
Rolling back the reforms
After passage of the 1996 reforms, political pressure mounted quickly to roll them back, and the next farm bills, enacted in 2002 and 2008, became key vehicles to do that.
In 2002, George W. Bush was in the White House with a “compassionate conservative” agenda and looking to broaden the GOP base among Hispanic voters. A budget surplus meant there was new money for the farm bill. The result: The farm bill that passed in May 2002 included $51.7 billion in additional spending over six years, about $3 billion of which was put toward increasing nutrition assistance.
The bill restored eligibility for food stamps to legal immigrants who had been in the country for at least five years and also for children and disabled adult immigrants, regardless of how long they had been in the United States. The measure also increased and indexed for inflation the standard deduction used to determine eligibly for payments. And states were offered increased funding if they cut error rates.
Six years later, with Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress, and Bush in his final year in office, the program was expanded again. Democrats were eager to shore up their rural support by boosting funding for the farm bill, and food stamps benefited from that. In the 2008 farm bill, spending on nutrition programs was increased by $10 billion over 10 years. To reduce the stigma associated with food stamps, the program’s name was changed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Monthly SNAP benefits were increased in several ways. The minimum benefit and the standard deduction were both raised and a cap on the deduction for child care benefits was eliminated.
The asset limit for SNAP recipients was indexed to inflation.
By the time the 2008 bill became law, participation had already risen rapidly from the 1990s, both because of the liberalized rules as well as efforts by the Bush administration to promote the program. In 2008, more than 28.2 million people were enrolled in the program, exceeding the peak before the 1996 reform bill, at a cost of $34.6 billion.
Starting in 2009, the program’s participation and cost would explode, reflecting not just the Great Recession and a temporary boost in benefits provided by the 2009 stimulus bill, but also because of the 2008 farm bill provisions and new outreach efforts by the new Obama administration.
By 2012, as Congress was in the midst of writing a new farm bill, average participation would hit 46.6 million and the program’s cost would skyrocket to more than $74 billion. Democrats had lost control of the House in the Tea Party wave that swamped Washington in 2010, driven in part by the stimulus bill and the rapid growth of programs like SNAP.
The table was set for another major test of the farm-food coalition.
The alliance paid off for farmers as well as the needy
At no time in the modern history of farm bills has the urban-rural, farm-nutrition alliance probably been more mutually beneficial, or more obvious, than in 2002 and 2008.
Both bills, which passed Congress with broad, bipartisan support, increased spending on farm programs as well as nutrition assistance, and the 2008 version had to overcome a veto by George W. Bush, whose main objection was to a new revenue-based subsidy program that it created for Midwest growers. (The program, Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) turned out to be far less popular and costly than Bush feared.)
The 2002 farm bill created a new counter-cyclical commodity program to augment the fixed annual payments that were created by the 1996 law but proved insufficient when commodity prices tanked. The bill passed the House, 280-141, with 141 Republicans and 137 Democrats in support, and then cleared the Senate 64-35. Only seven Senate Democrats voted against it.
Six years later, the Senate voted 80-14 to override Bush’s veto of the 2008 farm bill, which had to be considered twice because of a legislative error in the initial version. Only two Senate Democrats supported the veto.
The House overrode the veto, 319-109, only 13 House Democrats no votes. House Republicans split on the bill, 99-96.
When the 2008 farm came up for renewal, Democrats in the Senate would be crucial again in pushing the legislation across the line.
The coalition at risk: Demographic shifts and the Tea Party rise
As lawmakers prepared to replace the 2008 farm bill, the urban shift that Dole and his colleagues worried about in the 1960s and 1970s had continued, coupled by an equally dramatic polarization. In 2010, only about 19 percent of Americans lived in rural areas.
When new congressional lines were drawn after the 2010 census, 40 of the 435 House districts were 100 percent urban and more than half the districts were at least 86 percent urban. Just 34 districts nationwide were at least 50 rural, according to an analysis by ProximityOne.
Meanwhile, Democrats and major farm districts were disappearing along with urban Republicans. In 1996, the last time Congress had undertaken major cuts to nutrition programs, there were 44 Republicans representing districts in the Northeast. By the time Congress would start work on a new farm bill in 2012 that number would drop to 26, according to a University of Illinois analysis.
Charts above credited to University of Illinois
The number of House Democrats from the Plains states dropped from 21 to 12 over that period, the number from the Corn Belt fell from 25 to 22, and Democrats continued their Southern decline as well.
In 1996, there was still a sizable number of conservative, rural Democrats, such as Charlie Stenholm of Texas, who supported farm programs and were willing to vote for reforms to the nutrition title. At the same time, there were moderate Republicans who would resist cuts in nutrition spending.
“That placed limitations on how far you go as Republicans, and it gave you a chance to pick up Democratic votes,” said Bill O’Conner, who was GOP policy director for the House Agriculture Committee at the time. “You could count on 50 to 60 Democrats who would die to pass a farm bill because it was important to them,” O’Conner said.
What hadn’t changed is that the Republicans sent to Washington in 2010 and 2012 had recaptured much of the budget-cutting, anti-government fervor that had driven the 1996 Contract With America. As in 1996, they had an ally in the House GOP leadership, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who had his eyes set on reining in SNAP.
In the wake of the Tea Party rebellion, Republicans forced President Obama to cut a deal on a landmark agreement in 2011, the Budget Control Act, to rein in spending and cut the deficit. The agreement created a “super committee” to recommend a grand plan for reducing spending.
The super-committee ultimately failed to reach a deal, but the leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees used the process to agree on a plan to make $23 billion in farm bill cuts, which was one of the super-committee’s target. Under the lawmakers’ plan, $15 billion would come out of commodity programs with the rest split between conservation programs and SNAP.
The plan provided the framework for the farm bills that would emerge from the House and Senate Agriculture committees in 2012 and the legislation that would eventually be enacted in 2014. But the cut to nutrition assistance that was proposed during the super-committee process didn’t go nearly as far as many conservatives wanted, and these conservatives increasingly viewed the urban-rural farm bill coalition as an impediment to reform.
Conservatives not only wanted to cut the cost of SNAP they also wanted to tighten or eliminate provisions that they believed allowed too many undeserving people to get benefits or inflated benefits. Their targets included a provision known as “categorical eligibility,” which made people automatically eligible for SNAP if they received other types of public assistance. Also at issue was the SNAP utility allowance. Some states were increasing SNAP benefits by sending just $1 in heating assistance to households, a provision known as “heat and eat.”
Conservatives also were frustrated that the work requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDs, that was enacted in 1996 had largely been eliminated because of waivers that the welfare reform law permitted governors to issue during economic downturns.
The Heritage Foundation, a think tank that is especially influential with House conservatives, released a report calling for sweeping changes to farm and nutrition policy and decrying the coalition that had historically provided support for the legislation. “Opportunities for reform are hindered by the sprawling scope of previous farm bills, which have encompassed food stamps, child nutrition, forestry, telecommunications, energy, and rural-development. This concentration of special interests constitutes a powerful force for the status quo,” Heritage said.
Progressives were frustrated with the new attack on SNAP spending, but their influence was waning. The benefit increase provided by the 2009 stimulus bill was set to expire, and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, run by Robert Greenstein, who was President Carter’s food stamp administrator, argued that about half of the cuts made by the 1996 welfare law were still in place despite the 2002 and 2008 farm bills.
The 2013 farm bill crackup
The House Agriculture Committee’s 2012 bill, which was never debated on the floor of the Republican-controlled chamber, would have cut nutrition spending by $16 billion over 10 years, according to estimates at the time, largely by tightening categorical eligibility and the utility allowance. The Democratic-controlled Senate, refused to go that far, passing a bill that was estimated to cut $4 billion from nutrition.
The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Frank Lucas, R-Okla., couldn’t talk the GOP leadership into finishing the farm bill in 2012, forcing Congress to pass a short-term extension of the 2008 law, and setting up new battle over food stamp spending in the 114th Congress in 2013.
The Congressional Budget Office almost immediately threw a new hurdle in the way by issuing new estimates of the 2012 bills that sharply lowered the estimated savings from nutrition programs. In talking to state welfare directors, CBO analysts decided that tightening the utility allowance wouldn’t save nearly as much money as they thought. Their revision wiped out the projected $4 billion SNAP cut in the Senate bill and reduced the estimated nutrition savings in the House bill to $11.7 billion.
Lucas knew he had to sharply increase the cut to SNAP if he had any chance of winning enough GOP support to get the bill through the House by the summer of 2012, with enough time to work out a compromise version with the Senate before the temporary farm bill extension expired. So, in May 2013, his committee passed a new version of the bill that the CBO estimated would slash nutrition spending by more than $20 billion. Savings were primarily achieved by further tightening the eligibility and utility provisions.
But even that wasn’t enough. Conservatives were determined to do something to increase the work requirements, and they got a decisive last-minute boost from Majority Leader Eric Cantor. When the bill was headed toward a final vote in the House, Cantor threw his support behind an amendment offered by then-Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., to allow states to impose work requirements on SNAP beneficiaries and to keep some of the money that would be saved.
For the small number of Democrats who were willing to stomach the bill’s $20 billion SNAP cut, the Sutherland amendment was the last straw. The farm-SNAP coalition literally snapped. The bill failed, 195-234. Only 24 Democrats voted for it. Sixty-two Republicans, many of them hardline conservatives who were skeptical of farm programs as well as SNAP, voted against it.
The ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, was furious with Cantor. He says he had supported the bill because Lucas assured him the SNAP cut wouldn’t be increased. Peterson insists to this day that at least 50 Democrats were ready to vote for the bill before Southerland’s amendment was adopted.
Heritage and other conservative groups that had been agitating to slash both farm and nutrition spending seized on the chance to split the urban-rural coalition once and for all.
“Now is the time for the House to recognize what so many others have: The unholy alliance that has long dominated America’s agriculture and nutrition policy must end,” said Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action for America.
Lucas and the House GOP leadership saw only one option short of trying to win over Democrats: split nutrition programs from the farm bill and increase the cuts. “We wanted separation, and we got it,” said Rep. Marlin Stutzman, a hardline conservative from Indiana and Farm Bureau member who rejected the idea that farm and nutrition programs should be enacted together.
Lucas says the drive to split the bill was driven both by “my idealistic friends here in D.C.,” who thought that it would produce greater budget savings, and by “people in this town who wanted to kill the farm bill.
“By splitting them up you’d kill both pieces and not have a farm bill,” Lucas said.
In July, Cantor stripped the nutrition title from the bill and put the rest of the legislation on the House floor, despite united opposition from more than 500 farm groups and other organizations. The opponents included the American Farm Bureau Federation, which had seldom bucked congressional Republicans.
The House approved the SNAP-less farm bill, 216-208, over protests from Democrats. And then in September, Republicans forced through, 217-210, a nutrition-only bill that proposed to slash nearly $40 billion from SNAP over 10 years, a cut twice the size of the reduction in the bill that the House rejected in June. No Democrat voted for either bill. “Has our moral compass fallen so low?” asked House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
But the conservative strategy ultimately failed. The House’s cuts to SNAP were a non-starter in the Senate, a point that Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., had been making clear for months. During the final negotiations on the bill, which culminated in January 2014, the cut to SNAP was reduced to $8 billion, close to what was envisioned in the original 2011 super-committee process, by raising states’ minimum “heat-and-eat” payment to $20 a month.
Southerland’s SNAP work amendment was transformed in a way that appealed to conservatives and progressives alike. With input from USDA and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a provision was added to the final bill to fund a series of pilot projects around the country to test various conservative and progressive approaches to helping SNAP beneficiaries find work or get into better-paying jobs. The 10 projects are now under way.
Can the coalition hold?
The 2014 farm bill is turning out to save more money in nutrition spending than the CBO originally projected at enactment. As of August 2016, the five-year cost projection for SNAP had fallen $24 billion from what was originally projected, in part because an improving economy is reducing demand for the program more than expected.
And that trend is expected to continue: By last November, the latest month for which data are available, enrollment in the program had fallen to 43.2 million, down more than 3 million people from November 2013, when the final negotiations on the 2014 farm bill were under way.
Cost estimates for SNAP are coming down, too. In January 2016, CBO estimated that SNAP would cost taxpayers $73.9 billion for fiscal 2017. CBO has now cut that estimate to under $71 billion. By 2020, CBO estimates the cost will fall below $67 billion. Over 10 years, the reduced SNAP spending is expected to add up to about $80 billion less than that was expected when the 2014 bill was enacted.
Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees have seized on the new estimates to argue against cuts in the next farm bill, due to be passed in 2018.
“The good news … is that the economy is improving so there is less need for the safety net programs for families, so we’re saving tens of billions of dollars,” said Stabenow.
But Heritage and its allies in Congress still want to break up the farm-food coalition and slash both farm and nutrition spending. The 2016 Republican Party platform, for a time, called for breaking up the farm bill and removing SNAP from USDA. The platform accused Democrats of holding up passage of the 2014 farm bill, a reference to the dispute with the House over the size of the SNAP cuts. "The Democrats play politics with farm security. Much of the Democrats’ delay had nothing to do with the vital role of American agriculture,” the platform read. “It concerned their efforts to expand welfare through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which now comprises more than 70 percent of all farm bill spending.”
The Heritage Foundation last year called for phasing out farm subsidies but knows that any major changes in commodity programs or SNAP will require breaking up the political base that supports farm bills.
“If you’re a legislator you can always kind of say, ‘Well I supported this combined farm bill, because I support the ag programs and, yes, I just had to bite the bullet on the fact that nothing is done with food stamps,’ and vice versa,” said Daren Bakst, the group’s research fellow for agricultural policy. “We want legislators to be held accountable to their constituents.”
But several of Heritage's allies in Congress in the 2013 battle are no longer around. Cantor and Southerland lost re-election bids in 2014. Stutzman lost a race for the Senate in 2016. Another rare farm-district advocate for cutting food stamps, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, was ousted in a GOP primary in 2016. The conservative House Freedom Caucus is still around, but the group has so far been consumed by the debate over what to do with the Affordable Care Act. Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told Agri-Pulse recently he hadn't even thought about the farm bill and SNAP.
President Trump’s campaign advisers distanced themselves from the GOP platform language. During an October debate with a surrogate for Hillary Clinton, Trump campaign co-chair Sam Clovis said that nutrition programs should stay in the farm bill and that the best way to reduce the cost of SNAP is to promote economic growth that will put more people to work.
A few farm lobbyists wonder privately whether the farm-food coalition is as relevant as it used to be. SNAP can be routinely extended through appropriations measures. If all a farm bill is going to do is cut the program, there would seem to be less reason for Democrats to support the legislation.
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But farm and anti-hunger groups say they’re determined to keep their coalition intact, as shown by last month’s letter to the congressional Budget committees. “The agricultural community as a whole has little interest in slogging through another farm bill debate without working closely with our colleagues in the nutrition community,” said Chuck Conner, a deputy agriculture secretary under George W. Bush who is now president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.
Conaway, the House Agriculture Committee chairman, plans to move a new farm bill late this year or in early 2018, but he’s not sure how extensively Speaker Ryan wants to address SNAP and other welfare programs, or when. And it’s not clear that whatever Ryan decides to do would have legs. Unlike in 1996, there’s little interest in the Senate for welfare reform, says Roberts, the Senate Agriculture chairman.
O’Conner, the former House Agriculture Committee aide who is now a farm policy consultant with McLeod, Watkinson and Miller, said the public support for welfare reform that existed in the early 1990s is not there now. “Even the ferment about food stamps that was going during the last farm bill did not produce results that would tell you that it’s an absolute priority,” he said.
When asked about Ryan’s plans for welfare reform, a spokeswoman responded, “We haven’t said anything publicly.” A report issued by Ryan last year called for identifying policies that discourage work-capable SNAP recipients from getting jobs or preparing for employment.
Conaway, meanwhile, faces essentially the same balancing act that Lucas did in finding enough support to get a farm bill through the House. His committee held 16 hearings on SNAP in 2015 and 2016 and issued a report in December last year with a series of relatively modest recommendations. Among its conclusions: Some states need to better enforce their work requirements and enforcement needs to be coupled with better employment and training programs. “Promoting pathways to employment is the best way to help individuals climb the economic ladder out of poverty and into self-sufficiency,” the report said.
Rep. Jackie Walorski, an Indiana Republican who chaired the House Agriculture Committee’s nutrition subcommittee in the last Congress, has since moved to the Ways and Means Committee, which would have the lead role in shaping Ryan’s welfare bill.
Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger advocacy group that signed the February budget letter, says the House Agriculture Committee’s oversight is good for SNAP because it ultimately bolsters the case for maintaining the assistance. “It conveys to Congress how important the program is to all communities, including rural communities,” he said.
SNAP is as critical now to the working poor as it was two decades ago, he said. In 2015, the lowest 20 percent of the U.S. population earned $12.457, less than the average earnings by the same group in 1995, $12,898, when adjusted for inflation. “SNAP now functions much more as a support for working families, and a much higher proportion of SNAP recipients are from working families now than in 1996,” he said.
Rep. Jim McGovern, the ranking Democrat on the nutrition subcommittee, didn’t have any input into the committee’s report, but he later released a five-page letter quoting the broad array of witnesses who praised the way it functioned.
A second report, released by USDA, raised another issue that the committee may consider: Whether to put restrictions on what types of foods and beverages can be bought with SNAP benefits or whether to provide new incentives for healthful foods. The USDA report found that 20 percent of SNAP benefits are used for sugary beverages and junk food.
Conaway doesn’t rule out the possibility that the farm bill might have to be split again to get it through the House. Peterson, still the ranking Democrat on House Agriculture, is optimistic that won’t happen.
The outcome in 2013 “helps us because people got burned. I think they’re going to be reluctant to do it again,” Peterson said. “The Senate is not going to split this bill. No matter what happens in the House, it ain’t going to happen.”
Spencer Chase contributed to this report.