Can universal school meals be the anchor for a new reconciliation bill?
First, there was the pandemic. Then the end of the child tax credit sank 3.7 million more children into poverty. Now inflation is sending food prices soaring. These are the different causes, but they share the same outcome: Families that have struggled to put food on the table for their families — make no mistake — are still struggling.
Right now, prices are rising for just about everything, especially food. But a lifeline for families, now and over the past few years, has been the successful effort to feed all kids breakfast and lunch in public schools, no matter their ability to pay. This program is set to expire on June 30.
This week marks the first day of the April-May Senate work period. That gives Congress just two months to act to prevent kids from going hungry over the summer and during the upcoming school year — and there is a clear path to accomplish this.
We know Democrats are planning to revive a version of the budget reconciliation bill, once known as the “Build Back Better Act,” that was torpedoed last year. But we also know that, unless that bill looks completely different, it has no chance of survival. Congress needs to build a different reconciliation bill from the ground up. Let it start with feeding our kids.
We already know 52 Senators are committed to this: After extending free school meals for all was excluded from the sweeping federal spending bill last month, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) led the way in authoring the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act which proposes an extension to USDA school meal flexibilities. Fifty of their colleagues also signed on.
Reconciliation instructions are a way to enact legislation with only a majority (or 50 if Vice President Kamala Harris breaks the tie) — which we know this has, based on Stabenow’s bill. If it were to stay as a standalone bill, it would need 60 votes. And in this Senate, that’s a pipe dream. The most viable path for Stabenow’s bill is to let it be the building block for a new reconciliation bill. No other issue that I can see has been able to build a similar coalition. Not to mention, extending free school meals for all would cost less than 1 percent of the original, entire, and now “dead” Build Back Better bill.
I support paid leave, a child tax credit and universal pre-K. I also support feeding all kids in school. If a 50-50 Senate and an almost equally divided House make it impossible to achieve some of these, why can’t we forge ahead and chip away at child poverty with a popular solution? If there are other cost-effective initiatives that can be included in a new reconciliation bill that can assemble a coalition — great. Democrats should build off of school meals for all and find other issues that can get 50 Democratic senators on board.
The result will be keeping kids fed and ready to learn while also avoiding a political problem right as midterm campaigns are heating up. If school meals expire in June, schools, parents and communities will be asking: Why did we stop feeding our kids now — just as food and gas prices are soaring? That’s a problem Democrats and Republicans, Biden and state leaders, can avoid answering to if Congress acts.
Leadership may be thinking they can take this on after a new COVID relief bill or after a new Ukraine funding bill, but the clock is ticking — and reconciliation is the way to make sure all kids stay fed.
Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist and political strategist who previously served as campaign manager for former New York mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg. He is the founder and CEO of Tusk Philanthropies, which funds and runs legislative campaigns in states to expand access to food assistance programs, especially school breakfast and lunch.
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