WASHINGTON -- Republicans in the House of Representatives on Wednesday started in on a "top-to-bottom" review the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known by its former name, food stamps -- but they say they're not out to cut benefits.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees nutrition assistance, has insisted he is not interested in having the same fight about cutting benefits that roiled the Republican Party in the previous Congress.
"We will conduct this review without preconceived notions and with a commitment to strengthening the program so it can serve as a tool to help individuals move up the economic ladder," Conaway said Wednesday. "What we don't want is for this program to hold people back from achieving their potential."
Opponents of SNAP cuts voiced mild skepticism of Conaway's friendliness to food stamps. Bob Greenstein, director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a testifying witness at Wednesday's hearing, said he figures Republicans will try to reduce SNAP spending eventually.
"I think ultimately, they are likely to seek cuts but it's early," Greenstein said. "There's no immediate legislation moving. He's a new chairman and I think he really is trying to do a review of the program."
In the previous Congress, before he took over the Agriculture Committee, Conaway joined conservative House Republicans in a push to cut food stamp spending and diminish the program's political clout by separating nutrition assistance from farm subsidies -- a link that for 50 years has united rural Republicans and urban Democrats. The gambit failed and Congress wound up passing a traditional farm bill with more modest reductions, thanks to the votes of moderate Democrats and Republicans.
Food stamps won't need to be reauthorized again for four years. Conaway said Wednesday he has no particular program changes in mind and no timeline for possible legislation.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the panel's top Democrat on nutrition policy, said it was "curious" that SNAP had been singled out for review even though caseloads have been declining.
"I hope that this is not going to be an exercise in another attack on poor people," McGovern said.
In a signal that he's trying to strike a more conciliatory tone, Conaway didn't invite any conservative bomb-throwers to testify before the committee. Instead, he opted for Greenstein and Douglas Besharov, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland who offered modest criticism of nutrition assistance. Bersharov said that while SNAP and other safety net programs helped eradicate starvation in the United States, it has evolved from an anti-hunger program into an income support program.
"It is income support and we ought to treat it that way," Bersharov said, suggesting lawmakers look for ways to nudge more SNAP recipients into the workforce.