WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans are seeking deeper cuts to nutrition programs this year even as the federal budget deficit is shrinking faster than expected.
The deficit-obsessed House GOP wanted a $16 billion cut to food assistance last year, when the deficit topped $1 trillion, and now wants a $20 billion cut this year, when the deficit is expected to be $642 billion. What gives?
"As long as we're six or seven hundred billion dollars out of balance, all parts of government have to do their part to restore fiscal integrity to the system," Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said on Wednesday.
Lucas is the co-author of a new farm bill that will trim both agriculture subsidies and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often known as food stamps. His measure would save $20 billion over 10 years by increasing the program's eligibility standards, resulting in nearly 2 million fewer Americans receiving benefits.
"That doesn't mean taking food away from people who qualify, it just means everybody has to qualify, to demonstrate their eligibility through their income and their assets," Lucas said.
Thanks to a terrible economy, average monthly food stamp enrollment rose significantly from 26 million in 2007 to nearly 47 million last year at an $80 billion cost, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Three-quarters of households receiving nutrition assistance included a child, a disabled person or an elderly person, and 85 percent had incomes below the federal poverty line. Monthly benefits averaged $133 per person last year.
Those benefits are already set to decline this year, as a stimulus boost to the program will expire at the end of October.
As many as three-quarters of SNAP enrollees qualify based on their participation in another means-tested safety net program, CBO says. This so-called categorical eligibility allows states to reduce paperwork by not having to collect the same information multiple times. Most people who qualify for food assistance because they already receive other benefits would still meet SNAP's federal standards, but not all would.
Lucas's farm bill, co-authored with Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), would require more SNAP recipients to pass asset and income tests to prove they're poor. It would also stop states from sending nominal heating assistance checks, some as small as $1, to instantly qualify people for food stamps, instead requiring such checks to be at least $20.
Last year's House draft farm bill saved less money because it required these "Heat and Eat" checks to be only $10. Lucas has said he went for deeper cuts this year because he wanted to match the $37.8 billion worth of agriculture savings in President Barack Obama's latest budget blueprint. (Obama's budget achieved its savings by eliminating direct farm payments and reducing crop subsidies, not by cutting food stamps.)
Most Democrats on the agriculture committee Wednesday supported an unsuccessful amendment by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) to undo the food stamp cuts, which McGovern said will "increase hunger and exacerbate nutrition problems in this country." Lucas said he expects the committee to approve the bill sometime late on Wednesday. If it is approved by the full House in coming months, it would then need to be reconciled with a Senate-passed farm bill that proposes much more modest cuts.
The latest news of deficit reduction comes as even some conservative economists have suggested there is no further need for budget cutting. But other House Republicans on the agriculture committee seemed unimpressed by the notion that a shrinking deficit might be cause to lay off the austerity.
"It needs to go away," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) of the budget gap. "We can't start paying down that $17 trillion in debt till we get rid of the deficit."