House Republicans are taking their first shot at slashing federal spending on nutrition programs for low-income Americans. It won’t be their last.
Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), is introducing a bill Tuesday, shared exclusively with POLITICO, to expand current restrictions on who qualifies for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. It’s the first of what is expected to be a wave of GOP efforts this year to set limits on SNAP, the country’s largest food assistance program, which grew significantly during the pandemic. But while Republicans have telegraphed their desire to curb nutrition spending, House Democrats have yet to mount a coordinated response, raising concerns in the caucus about whether they can fend off likely GOP attacks on the program during the negotiations over the debt limit, budget and 2023 farm bill.
Johnson’s bill would expand the age bracket for able-bodied SNAP recipients without dependents, who have to meet complicated work requirements. The legislation would also limit the federal government’s ability to waive those work requirements for states he says are abusing loopholes in the system.
Supporters say enhancing work requirements as outlined in Johnson’s proposal is key to reducing cycles of perpetual poverty, and it will also save taxpayers money.
“We know that work is the only path out of poverty,” said Johnson, a member of the House Agriculture Committee whose family received SNAP benefits when he was a child growing up in Pierre, South Dakota.
Johnson hopes his proposal will be folded into the upcoming farm bill, which lawmakers will draft later this year, but it will face stiff resistance in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Other GOP lawmakers are now pressing for similar work requirements to be part of any deal on the debt limit between the White House and the House GOP. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) reintroduced a bill in January that would raise the age for food assistance work requirements by a decade to 59.
Democrats, however, note the majority of people who receive SNAP benefits are already working and, at the moment, are grappling with surging food prices, a challenge exacerbated by the end of a pandemic-era increase in aid.
“These guys talk about states’ rights all the time, except when it comes to poor people,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, one of the biggest anti-hunger advocates in the House.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations committee who’s had a series of budget talks with her Republican counterparts, noted this is a perennial fight.
“This is not something new, this go round. All you have to do is look back over the years,” DeLauro said. She added many House Republicans, who are currently eyeing broad cuts across anti-hunger programs and other social spending, would “decimate” food assistance programs if given the chance.
But even though they know what’s coming, some House Democrats are quietly raising alarms about their lack of plans to push back on the GOP proposals, which are likely to come up during negotiations over the debt limit, federal budget and farm bill.
“We need to be prepared for a showdown on food security — and right now, we’re not ready,” said one House Democrat, who was granted anonymity in order to speak plainly about internal caucus matters.
As POLITICO first reported last year, some Democrats have been particularly concerned about the leadership atop the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees SNAP and other federal food assistance programs. A handful of Democrats have pressed their leaders multiple times to remove top committee Democrat David Scott (D-Ga.) from his post, citing Scott’s health and concerns about his ability to effectively lead the committee. A steady churn of committee staff turnover under Scott has added to Democrats’ worries about their ability to effectively push back on Republicans. So far, leadership has rebuffed their efforts.
According to conversations with more than a dozen committee members and Hill aides, many believe Scott isn’t planning to run for reelection, and could even step down in the middle of his current term. They note he recently quit the Blue Dogs coalition and also has stopped attending key subcommittee hearings and farm bill listening sessions in various states — a major part of his role as ranking member as the two parties lay out their priorities for the legislation.
Asked last week about Republicans’ desire to cut food assistance, Scott declined to weigh in.
In a committee hearing the following day, Scott praised the “vital role” SNAP plays in feeding the nation. But then he made a procedural move that allowed House Agriculture Chair G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.) to approve the committee’s budget guidance letter, which endorsed a review of “strong pathways to employment” and “robust and effective integrity measures within farm bill nutrition programs.”
It was McGovern who spoke up during the hearing to express concerns. “Some of us will submit additional views regarding SNAP,” the Massachusetts Democrat told the chair. “And we will follow up with you in a timely fashion.”
The White House has largely stayed out of the brewing fight on food assistance amid the GOP calls for stronger work requirements and funding cuts — to some Democrats’ disappointment. But a paragraph tucked in the president’s budget released last week does call for “eliminating barriers to food assistance for vulnerable groups,” including time limits on SNAP eligibility. That proposal isn’t likely to gain any traction in the GOP-majority House, especially with Thompson at the Agriculture Committee helm.
The Pennsylvania Republican has been trying to carefully navigate the fraught politics around food assistance.
In an interview, Thompson said the current work requirements are “sufficient.” He’s also encouraged his colleagues to keep food assistance out of the debt limit fight. But given his experience as the former chair of the nutrition subcommittee, Democrats worry he could succeed in pushing through a series of smaller technical reforms to SNAP that would have broad implications, like pulling back flexibility around work requirements that has been allowed in recent years. The topic has come up in recent meetings of GOP committee members, according to lawmakers.
“G.T. Thompson made us all pretty much aware of the fact right off the bat that there are already work requirements in current law requiring work for able-bodied single people,” noted Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas), who sits on the House Agriculture Committee and is also a member of the Freedom Caucus. “The issue is that certain governors in certain states, there’s some loopholes in the rule where they can waive those. So I am interested in closing those loopholes.”
On the other flank of the party, the fight over federal anti-hunger programs could end up squeezing vulnerable members who represent districts Biden won in 2022.
That’s especially true of House Republicans like Marc Molinaro in New York, where state officials regularly ask the federal government to waive SNAP work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents. Molinaro, who received food assistance growing up, says he knows first-hand the benefits and the inefficiencies of the programs.
“Confronting that in a way that’s sensitive to the individual is really important,” he said, declining, for now, to say whether he’d support steps to expand work requirements for that aid.