A fight over how tough to make work requirements in the food stamp program is already threatening to derail the House farm bill, which some see as one of the only shots for bipartisan legislation this year.
The House Agriculture Committee, which was expected to release its bill as early as this week, is keeping a very tight lid on its proposal to change the program. But what little has leaked out has infuriated groups on the left and the right, jeopardizing its prospects for passage.
Committee Democrats publicly revolted last week after learning that Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) was eyeing stricter work requirements for some 8 million recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, widely known as food stamps. Now, some influential conservatives are saying the bill may not go far enough to restrict access, especially since Republicans control both branches of Congress and the White House.
“I’m concerned the bill might not go in the right direction on work,” said Jason Turner, who leads Secretaries’ Innovation Group, composed of conservative state officials who administer SNAP and favor policies that restrict access to welfare programs.
Turner, who served as commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration when Rudy Giuliani was mayor and has become influential on the right, cautioned that he hasn’t been briefed on the bill’s specifics, but worries that it might give more adults with children a break from existing work requirements.
“It’s diametrically opposite from what we would encourage,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
Every five years, Congress is supposed to reauthorize the farm bill, which covers everything from nutrition programs to farm policy and rural development, but it’s become an increasingly difficult task because of deep divisions in the Republican Party over how conservative to make the bill.
SNAP, which accounts for some 80 percent of farm bill spending, is the single biggest point of tension. Without SNAP intact, however, it would be tough for any farm bill to pass the Senate, where Republicans control just 51 votes — and 60 votes are required to get to the floor.
The nutrition program, which helps more than 40 million Americans buy groceries each month and costs taxpayers some $70 billion per year, has long been a conservative target. This year, the program could face even more pressure as some see it as the best chance to enact at least a slice of the welfare reform agenda that has slipped off the GOP leadership to-do list for the year.
“I think they’re going to get a real rejection by the House conservatives if they publish this the way I think they’re thinking about it,” Turner said. “And I don’t think they’re going to get the Democrats.”
Turner wants to see the committee abandon its push to produce a bipartisan bill, arguing that a more conservative take would give the House a better starting point for negotiations with the Senate.
But Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has made it clear the Senate version of the farm bill would not consider major changes to SNAP. And he has little room to maneuver with the Republican majority whittled down to a single vote since a Democrat won an upset in special election in Alabama late last year.
“I think we can make efficiencies, but we’re not going to drastically change that program,” Roberts told reporters earlier this month. “Quite frankly, I need 60 votes.”
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Tuesday he’s concerned about the GOP leadership’s unwillingness to prioritize stricter work requirements across a range of welfare programs. (Rector declined to discuss whether he’d been briefed by the committee on its SNAP proposal.)
“I honestly don’t understand why the Republicans are so skittish on this issue,” Rector said, noting that a strong majority of both Democratic and Republican voters consistently say they favor work requirements. “I’m kind of flabbergasted that Republicans don’t see this as not only good policy, but also good politics.”
Negotiations in the House continue and, by all accounts, are a moving target. On Tuesday night, Conaway told POLITICO that he couldn’t talk specifics, but seemed hopeful after meeting with ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) that a bipartisan bill is still possible.
“We had a good meeting today,” Conaway said, adding: “I think [Peterson] wants to get to a yes. I certainly want to get to a yes.”
But Conaway also seemed to acknowledge that the stalemate over SNAP could push back the timeline for House action. Asked if a markup would still happen next week, Conaway was noncommittal. “That’s going to be more difficult,” he said, “given we’re trying to come to grips with parts of SNAP, so it’s all fluid right now.”
The committee has kept such a tight wrap on the nutrition section of the farm bill that almost no one in town is looped into the process — not anti-hunger groups, not conservative advocates, not the food industry. Most lawmakers on the committee are also in the dark about all of the specifics, though they’ve been given bullet points on what to expect in the bill.
Conaway, for his part, maintains he’s not interested in deep cuts to SNAP. Committee aides have said that any money saved as a result of policy changes would be invested in SNAP education and training programs at the state level to provide recipients with work opportunities.
“I have made it clear that policy, not budget cuts, will govern the writing of this farm bill, including SNAP,” Conaway said in a statement to POLITICO last week, adding: “In fact, not one person would be forced off SNAP due to the work or training requirements we have been discussing. Not one.”
Despite their revolt last week, some committee Democrats remain hopeful a bipartisan deal is possible as meetings between Conaway and Peterson continue.
“The outline of the nutrition title that was presented to the Agriculture Committee provoked a visceral reaction among my Democratic colleagues,” said Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), a freshman on the Nutrition Subcommittee. “We want bipartisan support for the provision, and I hope that we can work with Chairman Conaway to get there.”