WASHINGTON – Republicans controlling the House are eying big cuts to food stamps as they piece together legislation to trim $261 billion from the federal budget over the next decade, hoping to forestall major Pentagon cutbacks.
The cuts to food stamps would reduce the monthly benefit for a family of four by almost $60, repealing increases that were enacted three years ago as part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus. The changes would also force up to 3 million people out of the program by tightening eligibility rules, the administration estimates.
The food stamp cuts would total $8 billion over the coming year and $34 billion over a decade. The program has been expanded greatly over the past few years — enrollment tops 46 million nationwide, up from about 33 million in 2009 — and now costs about $80 billion a year. The average monthly benefit for a family of four is about $500, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research and advocacy group.
Food stamps are just one of the cuts Republicans want to muscle through the House as a follow-up to the tightfisted GOP budget plan approved last month. That measure is nonbinding but instructed six House committees to come up with spending reductions as an alternative to across-the-board cuts scheduled to slam both the Pentagon and domestic agencies in January. Those required cuts are a consequence of the failure of a budget "supercommittee" to agree on a deficit-reduction plan last year.
House panels are producing legislation this week as the first step in implementing the GOP's budget plan, starting with Judiciary panel action Tuesday on a proposal that would sharply limit damage awards in medical malpractice lawsuits.
On Wednesday, the Ways and Means panel will weigh in with provisions to make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to claim refundable child tax credits by requiring them to have Social Security numbers to prove they are citizens or legal workers. The panel would also eliminate a grant program to states for social services such as day care and would increase the amount of health insurance subsidies under the new health care law that people must pay back if their incomes go up.
The Republicans' deficit-trimming package, while controversial, is tiny when compared to the $5.2 trillion in reductions called for by the broader GOP budget over 10 years from Obama's February budget plan. The smaller legislation taking shape on Capitol Hill would jettison bitterly partisan proposals that would dramatically transform Medicare and sharply cut the Medicaid health care plan for the poor and disabled.
"Education, jobs and health care would be slashed," Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Tuesday of the broader budget. "We know that cuts have to be made. And important spending decisions must be made. But you just can't say, 'Let seniors pay more for Medicare, let's not invest in education and the rest while we give tax breaks to the wealthiest people in our country.'"
Republicans say the cuts to food stamps would be modest when compared with the explosive growth of the program in recent years. Costs have more than tripled in the past decade, going from $21 billion in 2002 to $76 billion last year, with participation rising from 19 million people 10 years ago to more than 46 million at the beginning of this year. The GOP plan would lower projected costs by about 4 percent.
Many of the immediate cuts would return benefit levels to where they would be had Democrats not temporarily increased them in the stimulus measure. Democrats themselves tapped the benefit increases in 2010 to pay for earlier legislation.
More controversial, however, are rule changes that the administration says would force 3 million people off food stamps next year by tightening rules that require most recipients to have no more than $2,000 in savings. And GOP critics say 15 states and the District of Columbia are gaming the system by giving token energy subsidies to food stamp recipients to boost benefits.
Agriculture panel Republicans are, at least for now, leaving alone billions of dollars a year in oft-criticized farm subsidies, including direct payments to farmers regardless of whether they produce a crop. Cuts to those programs are waiting for a subsequent farm bill.
"Rather than hitting subsidies for some big agribusinesses, they're going after child and nutrition assistance that serves millions of children," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
Driving the GOP effort is a desire to avert a $55 billion cut — about 10 percent — to the Pentagon budget and a $43 billion cut to domestic agencies starting Jan. 1. There's bipartisan opposition to this so-called sequester, but it's not at all clear what part the cuts proposed by Republicans will play in any ultimate solution. Many budget observers believe any solution to the sequester, as well as what to do about the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts at the same time, will be postponed until after the November election.
For starters, Democrats controlling the Senate have no plans to advance a companion package of spending cuts. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., on Tuesday called off a vote scheduled for later this week on a resolution to counter the broad but nonbinding plan by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that passed the House. Conrad said he would instead launch a debate on the recommendation of Obama's bipartisan budget panel.
Separately, the House Financial Services Committee is slated to vote on a package of recycled cuts to the administration's financial overhaul bill, while the Oversight and Government Reform panel will vote on a plan to require federal workers to contribute more to their pensions.