Top House Republicans on Thursday pressed departing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to rein in what they see as food stamp cheating by state governments.
GOP leaders have been angered that the deficit reduction from the new farm bill could be less than expected because states have found a way to thwart a new restriction on food stamp eligibility in the legislation.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) wrote to Sebelius seeking answers about how the department administers the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and whether it can prevent states from “misusing” the program to get more food stamp dollars.
The 2014 farm bill sought to save $8 billion in the food stamp program by limiting the ability of states to make people eligible for food stamp benefits by giving them LIHEAP money.
Some state officials were reported to give as little as 10 cents per year in home heating aid just to automatically qualify recipients for food stamps.
“Since enactment of the farm bill, several states have announced that they will take action to raise their minimal LIHEAP payment to $20 for the sole purpose of maintaining higher [food stamp] benefit levels,” the new letter tells Sebelius.
It goes on to say that the state action could mean households in true need of home heating assistance are not given help.
“If states are issuing LIHEAP payments to households with no out of pocket energy expenses, what action will HHS take to remedy the outcome?” the lawmakers ask.
The letter seeks a response from Sebelius by May 1. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said the House will take up legislation to make more food stamp reforms this year.
A leading Senate Democrat on hunger issues denounced the GOP moves.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), said the GOP should realize that the government needs to do more, not less, to combat hunger.
"This is a red herring that some in Congress continue to perpetuate," Gillibrand said through a spokeswoman. "You only have to read the law to know that states who choose to take steps to stave off hunger are doing so in compliance with both the letter and spirit of the law."
"What we are seeing across the country are governors of both parties saying we have to do better to ensure children, seniors and veterans don't go hungry. Congress would be wise to finally listen," she added.
Sebelius announced last week that she would resign her post after five tumultuous years. President Obama has named budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell to replace her, pending Senate confirmation.
The Republican letter was also signed by House Agriculture Nutrition subcommittee Chairman Steve King (R-Iowa), and by Energy and Commerce Oversight subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-Pa.).