POLITICS

Food Stamp Fight Looms In Congress After Tax Code Overhaul

Donald Trump and conservative Republicans are itching for "welfare reform."

12/06/2017 11:59 EST

WASHINGTON ― Democrats have warned that after passing a tax bill that adds to the national debt, Republicans will say it’s all the more urgent to cut Social Security and Medicare.

While overhauling those popular programs is a long-term Republican goal, in the near-term conservative lawmakers are more eager to cut food stamps.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), founder of the House Freedom Caucus, told HuffPost on Tuesday that the influential bloc of conservative Republicans will push for “welfare reform” legislation next year that would add new restrictions on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

“That’s what’s coming,” Jordan said, adding that President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) support the idea. ”It’s got huge support. We just need to get it done next year.”

He said the basic idea would be new restrictions on able-bodied adults ― even if they have children ― along the lines of a bill he introduced earlier this year. Robert Rector, a welfare expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Jordan’s bill would cut SNAP spending by 20 percent over 10 years, which would amount to more than $100 billion. 

There’s significant savings if you do it right,” Jordan said.

Roughly 42 million low-income Americans, of whom 44 percent are children, receive monthly SNAP benefits that can be used to buy food in grocery stores ― making it one of the U.S. government’s biggest and most expensive economic safety net programs.

Jordan and Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) talked about the idea with Trump earlier this year, and Jordan said the president is enthusiastic about it. Trump said during a speech in Missouri last week that Republicans would soon tackle welfare reform.

“I know people, they work three jobs and they live next to somebody who doesn’t work at all,” Trump said. “And the person who’s not working at all and has no intention of working at all is making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his and her ass off.”

Republicans have used resentment toward the food stamp program ― established in 1964 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” ― as a political weapon since at least the 1970s. Ronald Reagan, during his 1976 presidential run, would tell audiences of a “strapping young buck” outrageously using food stamps to buy steak.

The Trump administration proposed substantial SNAP cuts in a symbolic budget document earlier this year. And on Tuesday the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers food stamps, announced it would soon give states more flexibility to run the program.

“SNAP was created to provide people with the help they need to feed themselves and their families, but it was not intended to be a permanent lifestyle,” USDA secretary Sonny Perdue said in a press release.

It’s not clear what the USDA will allow states to do, though some have sought leeway to impose drug testing and restrictions on what food items are eligible for purchase.

It’s also not clear if Freedom Caucus priorities can win acceptance among most Republicans on Capitol Hill ahead of a midterm election. 

A food stamp debate will definitely occur next year, however, because the program needs to be reauthorized. It’s possible lawmakers could punt it until after the election with a short-term reauthorization. The program has traditionally been coupled with farm subsidies in an alliance between urban and rural lawmakers that conservatives unsuccessfully tried to break in 2013.

House Agriculture Committee chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) managed to shield SNAP from significant cuts during a budget debate earlier this year, arguing that changes should only occur during the program’s scheduled reauthorization.