U.S. House panel debates nutrition benefit changes in GOP farm bill proposal

Republished from Kentucky Lantern


WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee clashed late into the evening Thursday over funding for food and nutrition programs as part of Republicans’ sweeping proposal for the new five-year farm bill.

The committee’s $1.5 trillion omnibus farm bill would set policy and funding levels for agriculture and conservation programs for the next five years, as well as for food and nutrition programs for families in need.

House Agriculture Chair Glenn “GT” Thompson, a Pennsylvania Republican, introduced the long-awaited bill last week and his panel undertook a marathon markup Thursday. The committee is expected to vote on a series of amendments and the bill around midnight Eastern.

The bill is tied up over disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on a funding calculation that would place limits on the formula that calculates benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, the food aid program formerly referred to as food stamps.

Democrats said Thursday it would lead to cuts in SNAP and kill any future of bipartisan support for the farm bill, which it would need to pass the Senate.

“There is absolutely no way you are going to get a farm bill unless we take care of this business, which is the heart of the matter,” Rep. David Scott of Georgia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said of the SNAP funding mechanism.

As the House committee debated the bill, Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in an interview Thursday that the legislation has no chance in the Senate.

“It tears up the farm and food coalition and does not have the votes to pass on the House floor. And certainly not in the Senate,” Stabenow told States Newsroom. 

Nutrition programs account for the majority of farm bill spending. There are more than 41 million people who use SNAP benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Dems pan changes to SNAP funding

Thompson’s bill would limit future updates to the Thrifty Food Plan, the formula that calculates benefits for SNAP. This would result in a nearly $30 billion reduction in spending over ten years, based on the estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, lawmakers say.

Democrats say that would significantly reduce food purchasing power for needy Americans.

“Any effort that takes the food off the table for hard-working families takes my vote off the table,” said Rep. Gabe Vasquez, a Democrat from New Mexico.

“If we want a farm bill that is able to pass into law with the bipartisan levels that it requires to pass beyond this committee, it is necessary that we go back to the negotiating table and remove this provision,” said Colorado Democrat Yadira Caraveo.

Connecticut Democrat Jahana Hayes offered an amendment that would have struck the changes to the program. But after more than two hours of impassioned debate on the issue Thursday night, the amendment failed on a party-line vote, 25-29.

“It is unfathomable that we are once again attacking the most vulnerable in this country, the hungry,” Hayes told the committee. “There are components of the bill that are promising, but that should not come at the expense of the most vulnerable.”

Republicans defend new formula

The underlying issue is cost projections for the farm bill over the next 10 years. The farm bill has to remain budget neutral, so lawmakers must fit their proposals into a baseline of how much the government would spend if the current farm bill was extended.

Republicans insist the SNAP changes are a cost calculation that would not actually reduce food support for needy families. The change would not kick in until 2027 and would not directly reduce current SNAP levels. Rather, it would freeze the list of products that families can buy with their benefits and the values allowed to purchase them, except for increases from inflation.

As such, the limits would make it more difficult for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add new items to SNAP or offer more support for certain categories, like the Biden administration did in 2021 when it increased the benefit for fruits and vegetables.

New York Republican Mark Molinaro said it is “dishonest” to describe the changes as a cut to SNAP benefits and South Dakota Republican Dusty Johnson said the benefits on the electronic benefit cards for SNAP would not go down.

But Democrats pointed to the CBO cost estimates that project a reduction in federal spending for SNAP if the bill became law.

“Let’s not try to make believe that this is no big deal, it is a huge deal… we need to do better,” said Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Jim McGovern.

California Democrat Salud Carbajal said Republicans were trying to “have it both ways.”

“If the committee’s considering it a paid-for then that is funding you are taking away from hungry families,” said Carbaja.

The farm bill funds programs across 12 titles for five years. The massive bill stitches together support for agriculture producers, energy and conservation programs on farmland and food and nutrition programs for families in need.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack raised concerns this week that the Republican proposal’s adjustment to SNAP benefits threatened that coalition.

The Republican bill would increase farm “safety net” payments for some commodity crops, expand eligibility for disaster assistance and increase funding for speciality crops, organic farmers and dairy farmers.

It is expected to cost $1.5 trillion over 10 years. A title-by-title summary of the 942-page bill can be found here.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

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