States outflank GOP on food stamp cuts

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Democratic governors appear to have the upper hand in a fight with House Republican leaders over a change to federal welfare policy that was enacted in February.

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Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is accusing several states of “cheating” by increasing their home heating aid to recipients of food stamps in a bid to circumvent cuts to federal funding.

The states, which are mostly in the Northeast and led by Democrats, say they are merely protecting needy citizens in a way that is well within the law.

While Boehner said last week he wanted the House “to stop” the states from avoiding the cuts, aides do not expect a fast legislative response, and advocates say they aren’t sweating a congressional crackdown.

“This is just political pontificating,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “The idea that there is some secret bait-and-switch is just preposterous.”

At issue is a provision in the farm bill, known as “heat and eat,” that allows people who receive benefits through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to also receive more nutrition assistance.

The idea behind the link was that low-income families should not have to choose between buying food and heating their home. But Congress has chafed at states that have sought to obtain more food stamp money by sending $1 LIHEAP checks to households that would not otherwise receive help.

To close what some lawmakers called a loophole, Congress increased the LIHEAP subsidy threshold to $20. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the change would save $8.6 billion over a decade, representing a majority of the spending cuts in the nearly $1 trillion farm bill. 

Yet in the weeks since President Obama signed the law in February, seven of the 17 states that currently send nominal LIHEAP checks have announced plans to increase that aid to $20, so they can continue to access additional funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Those states include Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Oregon, Montana, Massachusetts and New York. All of them, with the exception of Pennsylvania, have Democratic governors.

The moves at the state level prompted Boehner to lash out at his weekly press conference, where he said addressing the “cheating” was a priority for the House in 2014.

“I would hope that the House would act to try to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing,” Boehner said. “I mean, listen. The American people work hard for their money; they send it here because we impose taxes on them, and they expect us to spend the money wisely. And, we just passed the farm bill, and then we find states finding ways around the law, and, frankly, perpetuating the fraud that we were trying to stop.”

How and when the House might act is unclear.

Asked for specifics on a legislative response, aides said only that the relevant committees — Agriculture, Appropriations, and Energy and Commerce — would conduct oversight and continue to monitor the implementation of the law.

“It is premature to discuss specifics, but the committee will continue to be aggressive with its oversight and legislative agenda as it relates to SNAP,” an agriculture committee aide said. “This will include a review of LIHEAP, work pilot, and the other reforms in the farm bill. Where possible, we will coordinate our efforts with other committees as they review these issues, as well.”

The actions by the states to go around the cuts might not trim the budget savings, at least in the short term. According to a report produced in February by the Congressional Research Service, the CBO anticipated that some states would react to the change by boosting the LIHEAP checks to protect current recipients from losing their benefits. 

But because LIHEAP funds are much more limited than SNAP money, those states might reduce the benefit in the years ahead, the report said.

Berg, a longtime advocate for the poor in New York, said it was “rank hypocrisy” for House Republicans to challenge the states after proposing reforms to a range of social welfare programs that aimed to shift power from the federal government to the states.

Dan Holler, a spokesman for the conservative Heritage Action, said the controversy was not surprising. “I think a lot of people saw this coming,” he said.

Heritage opposed the farm bill compromise because the cuts and reforms did not go far enough, and Holler said it was a “frustrating” example of Washington being unable to deliver on even modest reforms.

“It’s basically window dressing,” he said.