WASHINGTON (AP) — About 47 million Americans received food stamps last year, but only a relative few are required to work or look for a job as a condition of receiving the aid.
Now, House Republicans are considering whether the work requirement should be strengthened as they seek cuts to the $80 billion-a-year program, which has doubled in cost over the last five years. One in seven Americans used the federal food aid last year.
A small group of GOP lawmakers met Wednesday to discuss trimming the program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. One approach discussed in the meeting was a proposal by Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., that would allow — but not require — individual states to test work requirements.
The push to pass a food stamp bill came after House GOP leaders stripped the domestic food aid from a farm bill that passed the chamber earlier this month following the defeat of a combined food-farm bill. Conservatives had demanded greater cuts in the food stamp program, so GOP leaders said they would take up the issue separately. But it's unclear if they will be able to find enough consensus within their caucus to move on the issue quickly — or at all.
After the meeting, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., indicated that there is a good chance the food stamp debate will be pushed to the fall as Republicans try and decide their course.
The House has already voted in favor of the Southerland proposal, which was offered an amendment to the combined farm bill that was eventually defeated. But a more far-reaching amendment that would have cut $3 billion a year from the program and required most able-bodied adults to work to receive benefits was rejected. Many moderate Republicans opposed that amendment, proposed by Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.
Before the meeting Wednesday, Southerland said his work requirement proposal makes sense because it is optional for states and doesn't cut dollars for the program.
"I think you have to have moral reformation before you have fiscal reformation," he said.
The concept of requiring work for some SNAP recipients is not new. The 1996 welfare law laid out food stamp work requirements for some able-bodied adults who don't have dependents. However, the 2009 stimulus law and waivers later allowed by the Obama administration have suspended those requirements in most states.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday that in looking at deeper work requirements, Republicans are ignoring who actually gets food stamps. He said 92 percent of recipients are children, the elderly, disabled or people who are already working.
Vilsack called the Southerland amendment "arbitrary" and said it would make more sense to improve state employment and training programs that help food stamp recipients find and keep jobs.
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said the lawmakers in Wednesday's meeting discussed the Southerland proposal and whether work requirements should be voluntary or mandatory for states. She said the group floated other ideas such as drug testing recipients and reducing automatic food stamp eligibility for people who are enrolled in other benefit programs. Similar provisions were included in the version of the farm bill that was defeated.
She said there were no final decisions and the idea was "not to think so much in terms of dollars saved, but what is good policy."
Another proposal favored by some Republicans, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is to turn all of the federal SNAP money over to the states and cap it. Ryan's budget also proposed a cut of around $13 billion a year to food stamps. But those so-called "block grants" to states may be too much of a cut for the more moderate members of the GOP caucus.
Regardless of the approach, any bill passed by the conservative House will be difficult to reconcile with the Senate version of the farm bill, which keeps all of the programs together and makes only a half-percent cut to food stamps. Strong objections in the Democratic-led Senate chamber and in the Obama administration will make it difficult for anything the Republicans propose to become law.
If the two chambers cannot agree, which seems a very possible scenario, Congress may have to extend current farm law — and current levels of spending for food stamps — a second time when it expires at the end of September. The law originally expired last September and was extended as part of a larger New Year's deal on the so-called fiscal cliff.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., have said the Senate will not pass another extension. But it may be the only option for farm programs that would be eliminated otherwise.
In remarks on the House floor last Friday, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., would not say how he expects leaders to proceed on a food stamp bill, except to say they were working on it.
"We intend to proceed deliberately, looking at policies that make sense in reforming these programs in the vein of trying to get to those most vulnerable the relief they need, at the same time paying cognizance to the fact that we have fiscal challenges we must deal with," Cantor said.