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House to Vote Tomorrow on Unprecedented Amendment that Would Increase Hardship and Hold Millions of the Most Vulnerable Americans Hostage to Farm-Bill Politics

The House will debate tonight — and will vote tomorrow — on an amendment to the farm bill that would hold millions of the nation’s poorest children, parents, and elderly and disabled people hostage to Congressional farm-bill politics.  The amendment, offered by Rep Mike Conaway (R-TX), would slash Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps) benefits across the board — and by large amounts — if, as has occurred in the past, a bill reauthorizing farm programs and SNAP has not been enacted by the time the previous farm bill expires.

The intent seems clear:  to force members of Congress who care about adequate food for the disadvantaged to capitulate either on farm policies or on other harsh, but somewhat less draconian, SNAP cuts — or else subject millions of Americans to hunger.

If the amendment were in effect now and Congress failed to reauthorize the farm bill by September 30, 2013, when it is now set to expire, SNAP benefits for all families of four would be cut by about $64 a month — nearly a 15 percent cut in average benefits.  (The amendment would lower the program’s maximum benefit by 10 percent, which, because of how the formula works, would have the effect of cutting average benefits by nearly 15 percent.)  Millions of impoverished Americans almost certainly would run out of food before the end of the month.

Among those who would be harshly affected are the 22 million low-income children — 10 million of whom now live below half of the poverty line — and the 9 million low-income elderly and disabled people who rely on SNAP assistance to try to get enough to eat.

This is unprecedented in SNAP’s history, and it would stand in sharp contrast to federal policy in other areas where reauthorization laws aren’t completed in time, including the defense authorization bill and other benefit programs where policies and programs continue without any such cuts.  Under longstanding law, if Congress passes an appropriations bill or a continuing resolution that includes funds to keep the SNAP program operating, that appropriation legally extends the SNAP authorization.  The same is true of program areas such as defense and trade adjustment assistance, both of which often operate without a timely authorization.  The Conaway amendment would overturn that longstanding bipartisan practice — but with regard only to SNAP.

Congress can fail to renew expiring authorizations on time for many reasons:  Senate filibusters or “holds” by an individual Senator; irreconcilable difference between the House and Senate, or between Congress and the President, on key policy issues or on matters that are peripheral to the main bill but important (often for parochial reasons) to key lawmakers; or the press of other business that is deemed more important, especially in the Senate, where debates can drag on for weeks or months on many pieces of legislation.

The history of past farm bills demonstrates that tardiness is to be expected, even though both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are generally supportive of the underlying programs.  By requiring across-the-board cuts in SNAP benefits whenever that occurs, the amendment would fundamentally violate the longstanding bipartisan principle reflected in every piece of legislation enacted in the past 28 years that has contained a mechanism for across-the-board cuts — that basic entitlement programs targeted on the poor are to be exempt from such cuts.  The amendment also violates a core principle of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles plan — that key programs targeted on the poor, like SNAP, should be protected from cuts and that Congress should not make cuts that increase poverty or hardship.

In short, the Conaway amendment is an extremist measure.  And, by making the poorest Americans the hostages, it brings hostage-taking — already an appalling way to fight policy battles — to a new low.