By Russell Berman
Democrats who reluctantly slashed a food stamp program to fund a state aid bill may have to do so again to pay for a top priority of first lady Michelle Obama.
The House will soon consider an $8 billion child nutrition bill that’s at the center of the first lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative. Before leaving for the summer recess, the Senate passed a smaller version of the legislation that is paid for by trimming the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
The proposed cuts would come on top of a 13.6 percent food stamp reduction in the $26 billion Medicaid and education state funding bill that President Obama signed this week.
Food stamps have made multiple appearances on the fiscal chopping block because Democrats have few other places to turn to offset the cost of legislation.
Party leaders raided the budget to find off-setting tax increases and spending cuts to pay for their top legislative priorities, including the roughly $900 billion healthcare law. Congressional pay-as-you-go rules require lawmakers to offset all non-emergency spending.
Democrats have turned to the food stamp program because funding increases enacted in the stimulus package last year were already scheduled to phase out over time. The changes proposed in the state aid and nutrition bills would simply cut off that increase early, in March 2014. Because the cuts would not take effect for more than three years, Democratic leaders have voiced the hope that they will be able to stop them in future legislation.
But House liberals are balking now, saying that while they swallowed the food stamp cuts to pay for urgent funding for Medicaid and teachers, they will not vote for more cuts in the child nutrition bill. In a letter sent this week to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), 106 House Democrats urged the speaker to take the House version of the child nutrition bill, which does not slash food stamps, rather than the Senate version.
“This is one of the more egregious cases of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and is a vote we do not take lightly,” the lawmakers, led by Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said of their vote on the state aid bill.
The House version of the child nutrition bill, authored by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), passed the Education and Labor Committee earlier this year, but lawmakers must find a way to pay for it before it comes to the floor for a vote. “Chairman Miller is working to find other ways to pay for this bill,” a spokeswoman said when asked if cuts to the food stamp program would be used.
A House leadership aide noted that the food stamp decrease approved in the state aid bill will not take effect right away and will leave the program at the same funding level it was at before the stimulus law was signed. “That doesn’t mean many Democrats are not concerned about the issue, but this is a process which gives us time to deal with immediate issues (like jobs) and helping the economy grow, while giving you time to deal with the food stamp issue,” the aide said.
The nutrition bill is clearly a priority for Michelle Obama, who has made a push for healthy eating one of her signature policy issues at White House. When the House version of the nutrition bill won committee approval in July, it marked the first time she weighed in publicly on pending legislation.
The Obama administration has not directly addressed the debate over the food stamp cuts, but it is backing the Senate bill. “We strongly supported the Senate action and look forward to working with the House to get a final bill onto the president’s desk,” an administration official told The Hill.
The $4.5 billion Senate bill would expand eligibility for school meal programs, establish nutrition standards for all food sold in schools and provide a 6-cent increase for each school lunch to help cafeterias serve healthier meals. The $8 billion House version includes more money for expanding access to school lunches for children in low-income households.
The deeper food stamp reductions in the Senate version would set an earlier date — in November 2013 — for eliminating the increased benefits passed last year. A family of four would see their benefit reduced by $59 a month, or about 9 percent. The bill would also cut funding for nutrition education programs aimed at low-income neighborhoods and households.
“It’s very sad. I think it’s just illustrating what dire straits our federal government budget is in,” said Sheila Zedlewski, director of the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Center. “It’s unprecedented to raid one safety net program to feed another.”