How epic GOP bumbling could inadvertently save food stamps

GOP felt $20 billion in cuts to the poor weren’t enough, so it killed the bill. The likely result? Fewer cuts. Oops

Published July 2, 2013 3:05PM (EDT)

John Boehner and Eric Cantor        (AP)
John Boehner and Eric Cantor (AP)

There are lawmakers in the Republican Party who really hate the idea of the government helping poor people stay alive via eating. This disdain is severe enough that 62 Republican members of Congress voted down last month’s Farm Bill -- with several specifically citing the proposed $20 billion cut to food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) as deplorably insufficient. (Deplorably insufficient as an amount to be cut, that is -- not deplorably insufficient for feeding the needy.)

The political ramifications of the party failing to pass the Farm Bill have been thoroughly analyzed, but less discussed has been the life-or-death implications of what will happen to the program now. And on that score, there’s a strong chance that Republicans’ unholy combination of malice and dimwittedness might actually yield the reverse of its desired effect: fewer cuts than they sought, not more.

First, some background. The Democratic-controlled Senate passed its own Farm Bill that would cut SNAP by some $4 billion, an amount already troubling to people concerned about hunger in America. The House then took that $4 billion cut and multiplied it by five, calling for a $20.5 billion reduction.

“That’s equivalent to getting rid of all food charity in the country for two and a half years,” Rev. David Beckmann of the Christian hunger advocacy group, Bread for the World, tells Salon. “Food bankers are saying it’s equivalent to eight billion meals for needy people.” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) estimated it would cause "2 million people to lose their benefits, [and] throw 210,000 kids off of the free school breakfast and lunch program."

While that’s enough to surely kill some hungry Americans, it was not enough to satisfy many House Republicans. Not only did some vote against the bill because it wasn’t draconian enough, but House leaders actually had enough support from Democrats to push through the $20.5 billion cut – until they asked for even more. Despite Nancy Pelosi’s warning that adding amendments that would further limit poor people’s access to food might cost the bill Democratic votes, Republicans went ahead and did it anyway. One amendment from Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-Fla.) called for stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients. Another required drug testing. The result of this overreach was that Republicans lost Democratic votes -- and with it, a Farm Bill that would have passed with bipartisan support and slashed food stamps by $20.5 billion.

What will they get instead? Probably far less in cuts.

Had the Farm Bill passed, there would have now been a conference between members of the House and Senate to reconcile the differences between the two bills – the Senate bill cut food stamps by $4 billion, and the House bill proposed cutting it by $20.5 billion. That would have resulted in a reconciled bill with cuts somewhere between those two numbers ($12 billion is the middle ground, and while that wouldn’t necessarily have been the final number, it’s one people close to the process agree might have been the eventual target). House leaders can technically still go to conference without a House bill, but they’d have far less leverage now and likely wouldn't come close to getting $12 billion in cuts.

With the Farm Bill failing, there are basically four options for House Republicans now:

1. Take the Senate bill up for a vote. If the GOP couldn’t pass its own more draconian bill, there’s little chance there would be more support within the party for this softer version (one which, notably, still does cut meals for the poor). If they did pass it, though, you’d end up with $4 billion in food stamp cuts – likely far less than Republicans would have gotten had they passed the House bill and gone to conference.

2. Bring a new version of the bill to the House floor. Within this option are two potential avenues: make the bill more moderate to win more Democratic voters (for starters, removing some of the punitive amendments that were passed at the last minute), or make it even more harsh to please the ultra-conservative hold-outs this time.

If they tilt a bit left and pick up more Democrats, House Republicans would probably still get more cuts than are in the senate bill, likely making this their smartest option. But doing so would risk violating the so-called Hastert rule – a House tradition of only bringing legislation to the floor that’s supported by the majority of the majority (i.e., House Republicans). Speaker John Boehner has violated the “rule” before, but has not expressed much appetite for infuriating his caucus to do it for this bill.

The more likely avenue, of course, is that House Republicans instead go far right. To pull this off, they’d have to pick up enough Tea Partiers to offset the 24 Democrats who voted yes on the old bill and presumably now would bolt. Under this scenario, we’d be looking at a bill proposing even more cuts for things like school lunches for poor children. Which way will they go? “My guess is they’ll go right,” one Congressional source steeped in the issue predicts. “They usually do.”

Tactically, the new version of this “go right” plan is reportedly to separate the larger farm bill into individual ones, with SNAP as its own separate measure. But breaking the larger package into different bills -- while popular among conservatives -- could cause parliamentary issues and get stalled in the Senate.

3. Pass an extender in a continuing resolution. Through an extender (something that would require approval of both chambers), Congress can keep the status quo going – i.e., last year’s levels, which effectively would be $0 in cuts to food stamps, or $12 billion less in reductions than they otherwise might have gotten! – or it can also make changes. Advocates studying the issue think it’s plausible the Senate bill levels could form the basis here, particularly because Senate Agricultural Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) continues to push the bill (and its $4 billion in SNAP cuts). “She’s not bought into zero [cuts],” one explains. But even that would mean $4 billion in cuts, not $12 billion.

(Senate leader Harry Reid said last week that the senate wouldn’t support an extension, but that was viewed as a tactic to pressure the House to pass a bill.)

4. Let the bill expire in September. Under this scenario, the House does nothing, most aspects of the Farm Bill go away, and SNAP stays at its current levels (because it’s considered a permanent program, and therefore can’t just disappear if a farm bill fails to pass). Were this to happen – not an implausible outcome, considering this Congress’s dysfunction – the cuts would go from a possible $12 billion had the House bill passed, to zero. (It’s conceivable this could happen. Last year, the senate passed a farm bill, and the House didn’t bring one to the floor. The result was to let the previous farm bill expire, and pass a partial extension that lasted until January, when some provisions were included in the fiscal cliff bill.)

In the end, what will happen this time is anyone’s guess. One thing for certain is that other cuts to SNAP are coming in November, already, because Congress previously voted to claw back benefit increases from the 2009 stimulus bill.

But the overall cut to meals for needy Americans would likely have been significantly higher, had the House Republicans simply gotten their act together. Instead, they overreached. And, instead of passing their farm bill – and possibly emerging with a $12 billion cut to SNAP in the end – they likely won’t come close. What's their next move? As one veteran Congress watcher told Salon, “With these guys, who the hell knows?”

By Blake Zeff

Blake Zeff is the former politics editor of Salon. Follow him on Twitter at @blakezeff.

MORE FROM Blake Zeff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Congress Conservatives Editor's Picks Eric Cantor Farm Bill Food Stamps John Boehner Republicans Snap The Poor