Sparks fly over SNAP at contentious markup of House farm bill

Sparks fly over SNAP at contentious markup of House farm bill

Democrats and Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee sparred over food aid on Thursday at the markup of the chamber’s version of the $1.5 trillion omnibus farm bill.

The issue set off partisan fireworks at the contentious session, during which representatives from both sides of the aisle took to the dais to extol the virtues of bipartisanship while accusing their opposite numbers of throwing those values in the trash.

Lawmakers fiercely debated whether Republican attempts to freeze changes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture food aid programs were “cuts” amid broader tensions over whether the bill as put forward by House Republicans is sufficiently bipartisan to have any hopes of passage.

“I served for 26 years in the United States military, oftentimes below the poverty level and using these programs,” Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-Wis.) said. “So I will not be lectured to by people who are saying that I’m trying to cut these benefits. It’s not true and it’s disingenuous.”

But, he added, “speaking about the waste, fraud, abuse that absolutely exists in these programs — every single dollar that goes to waste, fraud, abuse for these SNAP programs is a dollar that cannot go to feed a hungry child.”

Republicans “cannot have it both ways,” Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) shot back. ”I have heard my colleagues say that this is not a SNAP cut. But dozens of outside experts disagree.”

If the freeze to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, coverage was being used to pay for anything, Carbajal argued, then that money had to constitute a reduction somewhere else. “If the committee’s considering it a paid-for then that is funding you are taking away from hungry families.”

The proposed legislation, unveiled by Committee Chair Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) last week, would draw on SNAP as a source of funds to direct subsidies to commodity farmers, largely a few thousand growers of rice, cotton and peanuts.

The measure would not reduce current SNAP levels. But it would freeze the current list of covered products, and the values allowed to purchase them, at their present levels — though these would still be able to increase with inflation.

This would make it far harder for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add new items, or — as the Biden administration did in 2021 — to offer more support to, for example, buy more fruits and vegetables.

One point of contention that emerged in the debate at Thursday’s markup was what, precisely, these changes would pay for. As The Hill reported Wednesday, there are wide disagreements between the Congressional Budget Office and House leadership over how much money the SNAP changes would actually save.

That’s a point Democrats made explicitly. “On the policy front, this is a very good bill — you got a bunch of my marker bills in,” Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) told colleagues.

“But on the payment side I asked each of you, specifically, how do you get to your math. The word that has come back to me the most in the last 72 hours is ‘fuzzy.’ It doesn’t appear that my Republican colleagues understand the funding mechanisms either in this farm bill.”

At this, Thompson jumped in.

“Just to clarify, in terms of pay-fors, I’ve heard no alternatives for funding submitted from the Democratic side of the aisle,” Thompson said.

“So my door is open, and I am more than happy to work with you. But you know, the reason the papers have not been bipartisan, is because quite frankly the Democratic Party hasn’t been at the table.”

Many Republican members argued SNAP was oversubscribed and that the money went to the wrong types of food.

SNAP “was intended to give hardworking Americans a second chance during difficult stretches in life,” Rep. Mark Alford (R-Mo.) told the committee. “It was never intended to become a lifestyle but rather a life vest.”

The program, Alford argued, overpaid by millions per day — largely “aided by sugary drinks, which are the second most purchased items sold through SNAP. The truth is that as the number of SNAP recipients has grown, our healthiness levels have fallen here in America.”

“I think that’s shameful,” Alford added.

Democrats argued this was not only unfair but inaccurate.

“We just heard from the Republican member that somehow there’s a link between SNAP and bad health outcomes,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said. “I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, quite frankly.”

Studies of SNAP participants, McGovern said, found that participation in the program “is linked with improved nutritional outcomes, lower health care costs and improved current and long-term health.”

Research supports elements of both lawmakers’ statements.  Participation in SNAP means that children are far less likely to be food-insecure, which is very bad for long-term mental and emotional health. At the same time, a 2023 study found that children on SNAP “were more likely to have elevated disease risk and consume more sugar-sweetened beverages” than those not on the program.

That study found that other federal food assistance programs, which had “more stringent nutrition standards,” improved the quality of children’s diets while reducing childhood obesity.

House members have worked across the aisle on the matter in the past: In addition to calls for more stringent work requirements, Alford pointed to a bipartisan amendment he had put together with Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-Texas) that increased food aid for frozen fruits and vegetables.

But by midafternoon, with hours yet to go, tempers were running high in the chamber.

“My colleagues and I on this side of the aisle expressed willingness to work to find savings to permit other investments in a farm bill,” Carbajal told committee members.

“Sadly, those attempts at common ground were abandoned, and the majority has chosen to move on. Sadly this has been a trend in Congress — and certainly this bill will not become law.”

Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) argued bipartisanship was necessary not just to make Democrats happy, but because the bill couldn’t pass otherwise.

“History tells us that only bipartisan farm bills have a chance to pass into law,” he said. “This is especially true in a shared government where we have Democrats controlling the White House and the Senate and Republicans controlling the House.”

Both members’ comments pointed to the underlying pressures driving tensions in the proceedings: The existing farm bill is set to expire in September, and failure to pass a new version of the legislation is very much a possibility.

Such a failure occurred just months ago. Last September, following the House chaos that led to the election of Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), an exhausted Congress failed to reach an agreement on a new five-year farm bill and instead passed a one-year supplemental version.

This kept programs funded at their existing levels but left those who work in the farm sector or are dependent on food aid with a lack of clarity about what they could count on for the rest of the decade — a difficult situation for a sector in which investment and infrastructure decisions are often made years ahead of time.

On Thursday, Republicans argued it was Democrats who had refused to play ball and get the bill passed last year, despite Republican concessions. Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) pointed to “over 40 initiatives that were specific asks from Democratic members.”

“The very same members who are claiming that this bill is a wholly partisan undertaking say that this is not a bipartisan bill, when you know full well that this bill includes your requested priorities.”

“Well back home we call that chickens—,” Cammack added.

Many Democrats, in turn, rose to acknowledge these concessions, thank their colleagues in the majority party for some of their priorities and praise areas of genuine agreement: on programs to reduce wildfires and to create new markets for products made from America’s overgrown and fire-prone timberlands, along with efforts to pour more money into rural water infrastructure and rural broadband.

But on Democrats’ principal sticking points — SNAP and the climate funding of the Inflation Reduction Act — the parties remained at loggerheads.

And hovering behind the interparty dispute was pushback that cut across the political spectrum. Populists on both sides of the aisle have united in an uneasy alliance against the increasing role of concentrated agribusiness in American life, leading a coalition of left- and right-wing groups to oppose the House bill, as The Hill reported this week.

While left-leaning groups broadly oppose restrictions to SNAP, right-wing ones like the Heritage Foundation are generally in favor of them. They have expressed concern, however, about any long-term increases for support to commodity farmers, who as savvy business operators don’t need any more federal subsidies.

In the Thursday markup, Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas) argued that agribusiness, not SNAP, was the main source of misallocated funds in the farm bill.

“When folks have been talking about waste, fraud or abuse and are talking about people who are just trying to get by and on food stamps, I would actually point to the waste, fraud and abuse of corporate America, who are overwhelmingly starting to dominate our food systems and jacking up prices as well as underpaying their workers,” Casar said.

“Just take a look at the beef market, where we have four packing companies that now control 85 percent of the market.”

The farm bill, he said, “is such an important opportunity to reduce the power of those corporate price gougers, but instead, this Republican bill before us, rewards them.”

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