WASHINGTON — House Republican efforts to cut record U.S. government spending on food stamps may instead backfire and make it more probable funding will continue at existing levels.
The House approved last week, over Democratic objections, a five-year bill governing aid to farmers that leaves out funding for food stamps. The programs have been coupled for decades in a bargain among rural and urban lawmakers.
With the White House threatening to veto the House bill, and Senate leaders insisting on keeping the farm and nutritional issues together, it is more likely that the food stamp program will continue if Republicans won't compromise, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said.
"If you want reform, if you want to be able to cut down on waste, fraud and abuse, that doesn't happen unless we pass" food-stamp legislation as part of a farm bill, Stabenow said Monday in a conference call with reporters. "It's going to take not just bipartisan support in the Senate, it's going to take bipartisan support in the House."
House Republican leaders vowed to craft separate legislation to fund food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A proposal designed to appeal to conservatives who want major cuts won't gain Senate or White House approval, making it more likely that the program's funding would continue without reductions, Stabenow said.
Food stamps, which were created through legislation separate from the farm bill, don't necessarily die without a new agriculture plan, Stabenow said. Congress would likely continue to operate the program through other spending bills.
Annual average food-stamp enrollment has risen 77 percent since 2007, with the number of recipients falling only once since 2000. Spending last year was a record $78.4 billion, more than double its level four years earlier. Monthly food-stamp enrollment peaked in December at 47.8 million and was 45.7 million in April, the most recent month available. Spending reached its highest level at $6.47 billion in November.
Supercenters such as Wal-Mart Stores and discounters such as Aldi and SuperValu's Save-A-Lot chain benefit from the program, which subsidizes nutrition purchases for lower- income families, according to a Bloomberg analysis. The program has become for conservatives who want to cut spending, including those affiliated with the Tea Party, a symbol of dependency on government.
The separation of food- and farm-aid makes possible a real debate about nutrition spending, Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Penn., said on CBS's "Face the Nation" program on July 14.
"I have never talked to one person that says 'We don't want to take care of the most vulnerable,' " he said. "But I have talked to people that said the system's broken. And when they look at what's going on, we're wasting billions of dollars on a program that doesn't seem to be lifting people out of poverty."
Congress will "absolutely" continue to fund the federal food stamp program, Kelly said.
The party risked damaging its brand by being viewed as unconcerned about the needs of the poor, Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, said
That may not affect conservative Republicans in whose constituents want steeper government spending cuts, but it could hurt the party nationally.
"It's another one of these 47 percent things," Loomis said, referring to the presidential candidate Mitt Romney comment about government dependency to a group of donors that was secretly videotaped. "The real damage isn't to Tim Huelskamp in western Kansas or Mike Pompeo in Wichita. The real damage is to Republican presidential hopefuls."
The House approved a version of the agriculture law reauthorizing only farm subsidies last week, 216-208. The bill has traditionally passed Congress via a coalition of conservative rural lawmakers and urban Democrats. The House last month defeated a plan with both elements, sending leadership in search of a new strategy. A bipartisan Senate plan encompassing farm and food aid passed that chamber 66-27 June 10. The current legislation begins to expire Sept. 30.
The separate food-stamp-only approach embraced by the House leaders shows a political calculation by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that budget hawks are more important than farm-bill backers, said Parke Wilde, a nutrition policy professor at Tufts University in Boston.
At the same time, the risk of the Republican move is that the split would lower overall political support for the farm bill, putting any final compromise, which may include cuts to food stamps unsatisfactory to either party, in jeopardy, Wilde said.
"There isn't any political damage as being seen as being anti-food stamp. Republicans have been saying that broadly in public already," Wilde said in an interview. Still, "are senators even going to entertain a split from the bill? If they rejoin the bills, will Boehner bring it back up for a floor vote?"
Stabenow said Monday she's waiting for the House to send its farm-only bill to the Senate and will deal with food stamps when the separate proposal is also approved. A five-year reauthorization of policies is necessary, even with small reductions in funds, to shield the program from sudden changes, she said.
Congress may ultimately agree to farm legislation that includes food stamps, keeping intact the decades-old coalition, Sarah Binder, a legislative political scholar at Brookings Institution in Washington, said in an interview.
If not, it isn't clear what the political consequences will be, Binder said.
"As the economy begins to recover, I think the sense that we need to keep spending more probably starts to wane," Binder said in an interview. "The constituency served by this program is less organized, less likely to be vocal, and of course don't control the House of Representatives."
— With assistance from Kathleen Miller in Washington.