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House Looks to Cut Food Stamps to Offset Defense Trigger

The House will “deem” their FY2013 budget passed today, a tactic that didn’t work when they tried it last year. The “deeming resolution” won’t even come up in the context of a budget bill, but a separate measure on gun rights. The House leadership claims that this is necessary because of the failure of the Senate to pass a budget. But spending levels are locked in from the Budget Control Act, last year’s debt limit deal, and the House could simply use those targets for their appropriations process. The only reason they will deem and pass today is because they changed those targets, with lower spending than the Budget Control Act envisioned.

But the bigger budget news came yesterday. The House has been trying to find offsets to replace the trigger cuts to defense spending that will hit at the end of the year. Previously, their only substitute cuts came at the expense of the federal workforce. But those were not enough to offset the defense trigger. So now they have a new target: food stamps:

From food stamps to child tax credits and Social Service block grants, House Republicans began rolling out a new wave of domestic budget cuts Monday but less for debt reduction — and more to sustain future Pentagon spending without relying on new taxes.

At one level, the pro-Pentagon, anti-tax stance fits traditional Republican doctrine. And the whole goal is to come up with enough savings to forestall automatic spending cuts that will fall most heavily on the Defense Department in January.

But what’s also driving the latest cuts is a newer narrative, voiced by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), that the social safety net is at risk of becoming a “hammock.” And even as the unemployment rate has begun to fall, conservatives are alarmed that the level of income-related government benefits continues to rise.

An average family of four would face an 11 percent cut in monthly benefits after Sept. 1 and, even more important, tighter enforcement of rules would require that households exhaust most of their liquid assets before qualifying for help. This hits hardest among the long-term unemployed, who would be forced off the rolls until they have spent down their savings to less than $2,000 in many cases.

The “new narrative” is patently ridiculous. Food stamps have risen mainly because it has taken the place of traditional welfare, which after the reforms of 1996 has proven ineffective in recessions. The food stamp program helped keep millions out of poverty during the recession, and the rolls have increased out of need, not out of government generosity.

In fact, while food stamp benefits did expand as part of the stimulus package, they were cut back twice in the last Democratic Congress, once to pay for a state fiscal aid bill and a second time to pay for the child nutrition bill, which quite literally provided children lunch and paid for it by taking away their dinner. The bump from the stimulus will end completely by November 2013. Republicans would roll it back a year early, ending it September 1 of this year, for a savings of $5.9 billion. Other onerous eligibility requirements would save $20 billion more, and like most eligibility rules the purpose is to make it harder for people with legitimate needs to access food stamp benefits, reducing the cost to the government.

Even with the GOP’s eligibility rules, the savings are a pittance of what’s needed to offset the defense trigger, and it would have to be combined with a host of other cuts. But in a real sense it gives away the game. Programs for the poor are seen by this incarnation of the right as targets. So-called “welfare reform” shot welfare full of holes and now they’re going after food stamps and Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit. They will not stop until those alien “others” lose all their benefits, which can then flow more easily to the rich, corporations and defense contractors.

And it goes without saying that Ag subsidies, where farmers are paid in some cases to not grow crops, would remain intact. The producers would still get cash payments; the poor people who need the food would not.

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David Dayen

David Dayen