POLITICS
12/20/2018 05:00 am ET Updated Dec 20, 2018

Trump Administration Goes Around Congress On Food Stamp Work Requirements

Who needs Congress when you can write your own regulation?

WASHINGTON ― Republicans couldn’t get tough new “work requirements” for food stamp recipients through Congress, but the Trump administration has apparently decided that it can get what it wants without using the legislative process. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed a new regulation Thursday that would make it harder for states to waive the work requirements that are already part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Republicans have long complained that states have too much leeway to exempt childless, able-bodied SNAP recipients from the work requirements, which limit benefits to three months unless they get a job.

The regulation is similar to changes that Republicans pushed through the House of Representatives earlier this year. But the changes were omitted from a final version of the legislation that passed both the House and Senate on a bipartisan basis last week, because Senate Democrats hated them.

President Donald Trump is scheduled to sign that legislation, known as the farm bill because it includes agriculture subsidies, on Thursday afternoon. 

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the proposed regulation “blatantly ignores” the farm bill that Congress passed.

“I expect the rule will face significant opposition and legal challenges,” Stabenow said.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, speaks during a meeting of the committee
Jacquelyn Martin/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, speaks during a meeting of the committee as it considers the bipartisan farm bill in June.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) praised the rule ― even though in a previous interview with HuffPost, he said such a regulation, which had been rumored, would be unacceptable.

“It would not be satisfactory to the House,” Conaway said in October. “We have to change the law.”

One aspect of current law that has rankled Republicans is that states can waive the work rules in small geographic areas as long as the unemployment rate is 20 percent higher than the national rate. That means a state can exempt SNAP recipients living in counties with 4.8 percent unemployment if the national rate is 4 percent. 

The proposed regulation would keep the 20 percent exemption but only if the local jobless rate is above 7 percent, according to a USDA fact sheet. The House version of the farm bill had the same provision, as well as at least a couple of other changes in the regulation, such as disallowing states from waiving the rules in areas that might include pockets of lower joblessness. 

The new rule does not include the House farm bill’s more stringent provisions, which would have applied work requirements to some parents of minor children who are currently exempt. 

If the rule is finalized ― a process that generally takes months ― it would cut off food assistance for hundreds of thousands of people, said Bob Greenstein, director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

“Having failed to secure these harmful changes in the bipartisan farm bill that Congress just completed, the administration is now moving to implement them through administrative action,” Greenstein said. 

Roughly 38 million Americans get monthly SNAP benefits, which can be redeemed for food in grocery stores. A majority of recipients are children and elderly or disabled adults, while about 10 percent are able-bodied adults.  

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