Ordinarily, when conservative policymakers complain about "fraud" and "cheating" in federal programs intended to help poor people eat food, they're referring to individuals accused of abusing the system unfairly. But over the last few days, congressional Republicans are using familiar rhetoric in an unfamiliar way
Republican leaders are threatening to take congressional action to stop state governors from flouting the food stamp cuts contained in the 2014 farm bill. The governors of at least six states -- New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Montana and Oregon -- have now taken measures to protect more than a combined $800 million in annual Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and more states are expected to follow suit. Their actions threaten -- over time -- to wipe out the more than $8 billion in cuts over 10 years to the food stamp program that were just passed by Congress as part of the 2014 farm bill. But those who initially supported the food stamp cuts are warning that retaliatory actions may be coming.
As a policy matter, the underlying change is a little tricky. Republicans successfully cut food aid to the poor -- though not nearly as much as they'd hoped -- which mostly affected 17 states that participate in the "Heat and Eat" program, which connects federal LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program) assistance with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
At last count, six of the affected governors -- five Democrats and one Republican -- have decided to start fiddling with the books, moving money around so low-income constituents won't lose their food benefits. Other governors appear eager to do the same.
And this has apparently outraged Republicans on Capitol Hill. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters late last week that he wants Congress to "try to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing." Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), who helped write the relevant legislation, wants a full congressional investigation and new measures intended to guarantee food-stamp cuts.
Remember, the "cheating" and "fraud" is in reference to state officials trying to help low-income residents access food.
Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) expressed anger Friday over the possibility that none of the cuts to the SNAP program would be realized and asked USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack during an appropriations hearing whether he had any inside knowledge that states would nullify the benefit reductions. Vilsack said he didn't know or suspect what the states would do, but defended their right to take action. "Frankly, as a former governor and former state senator, I respect the role of governors and legislatures to make decisions that they think are in their state's best interests," Vilsack said.
GOP lawmakers found this unsatisfying. Expect to hear quite a bit more about this in the coming weeks.