Politics & Policy

The Food-Stamp Farce

Democrats' handwringing should not be taken seriously.

Democrats are facing some blowback for cutting food stamps to pay for two recent spending bills, one a child-nutrition measure and the other a bailout for cash-strapped state governments. Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s (D., Conn.) response was typical: “I fought very hard for the food-assistance money in the Recovery Act,” she said, “but I know that states across the nation and my own state of Connecticut also desperately need these resources to save jobs and avoid Draconian cuts to essential services for low-income families.” Most Democrats also blamed Republicans for forcing them to offset the spending in the first place, instead of letting them add it to this year’s $1.3 trillion deficit.

This reasoning is warped on at least three levels. First, Republicans are not the only ones in Congress concerned about unpaid-for spending. Second, the idea that Congress can’t or won’t simply restore the food-stamp cuts at some point in the future seems ridiculous to anyone who has watched it continuously reauthorize expiring stimulus provisions over the past year. Finally, the federal budget hardly lacks for other offsets. Republicans at the committee level suggested offsetting the new spending by cutting wasteful farm subsidies. Democrats decided to cut food stamps instead.

In Congress, deficit-weariness is now a bipartisan phenomenon. An unfunded extension of unemployment benefits almost failed to pass the Senate last month over the concerns of Democrats such as Ben Nelson (Neb.), and it was clear to Democratic leaders in Congress that they didn’t have the votes for any bill, particularly one as contentious as the state-bailout bill, that relied on even more borrowing.

One reason for the deficit-weariness is the Democrats’ refusal to let “temporary” stimulus programs expire. Passage of the state-bailout bill marked the fourth time Congress has extended provisions of the $862 billion stimulus bill that passed in 2009. (For those keeping score at home, it was the sixth round of fiscal stimulus Congress has passed since early 2008, when the Bush administration got us started down this road.) Each time these provisions are about to expire, Democrats cry to the heavens that letting them do so will immediately put hardworking Americans in breadlines and leave children sleeping on grates.

This is important to keep in mind, because the Democrats did not actually “cut” food-stamp benefits effective immediately. Rather, they moved up the expiration date of an expansion of food-stamp benefits that they created as part of the 2009 stimulus bill. (Actually, they moved up the expiration date twice: from 2015 to 2014 to fund the child-nutrition measure, then from 2014 to 2013 to fund the state-bailout bill.)

Most people would be surprised to learn that Congress had approved an “emergency,” recession-era expansion of food stamps for that far into the future in the first place. Wasn’t the stimulus bill supposed to end the recession? Why did the authors of the stimulus think we would still need extra-generous food stamps in 2015? But if 2013 rolls around and food-stamp usage remains elevated, does anyone think the Democrats won’t try to extend the expansion for another two years? By that point, few will remember that setting them to expire two years early was supposed to offset other new spending, and even fewer will care, so there’s a good chance that we’ll never actually see these “cuts.”

But by far the most egregious aspect of the Democrats’ farcical handwringing over food-stamp cuts that probably won’t happen is that real offsets were initially put on the table and then rescinded. During committee hearings over the child-nutrition bill, Republicans suggested that Democrats look to the bloated farm bill for offsets. Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) reiterated his position that cuts be made to the direct-payments program, which is a program that sends checks to farmers based on a historical average of what they’ve produced. In other words, it makes no difference how high crop prices are — and lately they’ve been high — or whether a farmer actually grows any crops at all: He still gets a check from the government. Direct payments cost an average of $5 billion a year. Eliminating the program would have paid for all of the new spending contained in the two bills and then some.

Even farm-subsidy supporter Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) got in on the action, offering up the Conservation Stewardship Program, a program that pays farmers to idle their land. (One Senate GOP aide points out that this probably wouldn’t have saved that much money; good prices for crops mean that many farmers are dropping out of government conservation programs — which is yet another argument against direct payments.) Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.), who is running for re-election, compromised by offering cuts to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which helps big factory farms buy things like methane digesters to deal with industrial-scale manure. But in the end, election-year pressures must have gotten to Lincoln: The cuts to EQIP didn’t make it into the legislation that passed.

Add it all up, and here’s the picture you get: Democrats are feeling pressure not to add to this year’s deficit, but they’re really hoping that these pressures will wane in future years. Therefore, they decided to use food stamps as offsets, knowing that in the future it will be (slightly) easier to restore nutritional assistance to poor people than the funding for Farmer McMillionaire’s cow-gas eliminator. And if you think that’s a lot of bovine byproduct, friend, you’re not alone.

Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.

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