Food stamps could be in mix for Republicans' 2012 spending cuts

Welfare reform, including cutting funds for food stamps, could be in the mix for the Republicans’ 2012 budget proposal.

The House Budget Committee has discussed the possibility, according to a GOP aide.

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Conservatives in the lower chamber want Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to include welfare reform alongside the entitlement reforms to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare in the budget he’s working on.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), introduced the idea in the Welfare Reform Act last week.

Jordan told The Hill on Tuesday that he plans to talk to Ryan next week, when Congress returns from its recess, about including the RSC proposals in next year’s budget. He stressed that while the bill is meant to cut the deficit, it is also meant to improve the lives of the poor by helping them transition to employment.

The proposal, which is estimated to save as much as $1.4 trillion over a decade, could help Ryan out of an embarrassing bind.

The Budget Committee chairman has the tall task of coming up with a 2012 spending plan that includes more deficit reduction than the one President Obama has proposed — and he has to do it without increasing taxes, something his conference would ardently oppose. He is scheduled to release his budget proposal the first week of April.

Jordan said he has not talked to leadership about moving his politically explosive Welfare Reform Act. Anti-poverty groups are already blasting it as worse than the cuts the GOP has embraced so far and have prepared an all-out assault on the proposal.

The groups were already troubled by a letter the House Agriculture Committee sent to Ryan last week suggesting food stamps could be a place to cut spending before cutting farm subsidies.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being worst, I’d place putting the RSC bill into the budget resolution at 100,” Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, said.

Lisa Davis of Feeding America said the proposal “would mean an immediate cut of about $59 a month for a family of four.”

“This is the wrong place to go for cuts,” she said.

Feeding America lobbied Congress earlier this month to maintain funding, or increase it, for food stamps. This week the group will unveil a study that shows, for the first time, the number of food stamp recipients in each county as part of its effort to educate Congress on the use of the program.

Asked about the RSC proposal, Brad Dayspring, the spokesman for Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), referred questions to the Budget Committee, which did not comment on it Tuesday.

The RSC bill would set back overall welfare spending for most poverty programs to 2007 levels, plus inflation. The proposal includes food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid, but does not include unemployment insurance or Social Security disability payments.

In addition to cutting the increased spending on food stamps that was part of the 2009 stimulus bill, the RSC proposal would create a tougher work requirement to receive food stamps.

Currently, adults without dependents working less than 80 hours per month are limited to three months of food stamps in any three-year period. The bill would require heads of families to work 120 hours per month to receive benefits, among other changes.

“We want to help families stuck in the system get onto gainful employment,” Jordan explained.

The RSC has included a trigger in its proposal that says the cap would only be enforced once unemployment dips below 6.5 percent, something that isn’t projected to happen before 2015.

“Let’s make this work better. If you have 77 different programs, there is probably some duplication,” Jordan said.

Bob Bixby, of the deficit watchdog group Concord Coalition, said he could see the welfare proposal put into the budget resolution.

“[Ryan] is really boxed in by the freshman caucus,” Bixby said. “If he doesn’t come up with a balanced budget in 10 years, I suspect that will be a real problem.”

And that might not happen, even with the additional cuts, according to one projection, which would be a politically embarrassing situation for Republicans.

In a new analysis posted on the Coalition’s website, Bixby shows how difficult it will be for Ryan to construct a budget that has deficits lower than Obama’s.

Even if he adopts the RSC proposal and turns Medicare into a voucher system, Ryan would only be able to achieve deficits of $7.5 trillion over 10 years, worse than Obama, according to the group’s analysis. The president’s 2012 budget proposal projects a $7.2 trillion deficit.

The difference is largely due to the fact Obama assumes George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy will expire in two years. The president’s plan also assumes the deficit savings from his healthcare law will be achieved.

In his budget proposal, Ryan will have to assume the tax cuts are extended and the healthcare law is repealed. He will also have to use less rosy Congressional Budget Office economic estimates after having blasted the administration for its assumptions in the 2012 budget proposal.

Bixby said to get even further reductions, Ryan will have to go deeper after entitlement spending and the defense budget, and might be tempted by the RSC welfare proposal.

But Bixby pointed out that including welfare cuts, without other cuts and revenue raisers on the table, could easily be portrayed by liberals as “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.”