Hundreds of amendments have been filed for Senate action on the farm bill (S. 3240), which authorizes nutrition programs, assistance for farmers, and conservation measures. Senate negotiators worked for days to get a Unanimous Consent agreement to bring a manageable number of amendments to the floor. On June 18, it was announced that agreement had been reached, and 73 amendments would be taken up, beginning Tuesday, June 19 at 2:15 p.m. But in one vote that occurred before the comprehensive agreement, and another decision to avert a vote on another harmful amendment, the Senate rejected extreme proposals to dismantle SNAP and to deny its aid potentially to millions of people in need.
An amendment taken up prior to the full agreement would have eliminated the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps, now called SNAP) and replaced it with a block grant with drastically reduced funding. A radical approach proposed by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), the Senate rejected it with a bipartisan vote of 65 – 33 to table (the procedural motion to oppose). Among those voting, all Democrats supported the motion to block the Paul amendment; they were joined by 13 Republicans.
This year, SNAP is funded at about $80 billion; it serves over 46 million people. Under the Rand proposal, funds would drop to $45 billion next year, and then be permanently fixed at that level, with no adjustments for rising food costs or caseload growth. Over ten years, the Paul block grant would have slashed $322 billion from SNAP. His amendment would also have eliminated The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and the Food Distribution Program in Indian Reservations (FDPIR), which supply food to food banks.
Among the 73 amendments to be debated this week, an amendment restoring $4.5 billion in SNAP funding was filed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is strongly favored by anti-hunger advocates. The amendment (SA 2156) would undo a proposed cut of $90 a month in benefits affecting 500,000 SNAP participants (see Human Needs Report, April 30, 2012). The Gillibrand amendment would also add $500 million over ten years for a fresh fruit and vegetable snack program. It would be paid for by a reduction in crop insurance payments.
Anti-hunger advocates were pleased to see another extreme amendment dropped from consideration on the Senate floor. An amendment offered by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) would have denied SNAP assistance to all members of a household if any member of that household were unable to provide a limited set of documents showing that they were citizens or immigrants here legally. This amendment (SA 2171) would have prevented poor citizen children in mixed households from receiving SNAP, even though they are eligible. It would also have denied aid to many thousands of citizens who simply do not have the birth certificate or passport required as proof. When similar restrictions were put in place for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, almost no undocumented people were found to be wrongly applying for these benefits, but thousands of children and seniors were denied medical help. For example, Virginia and Kansas dropped 11,000 and 14,000 children from their Medicaid programs respectively because their families could not supply proper documentation; each state found one (1) person falsely claiming to be a citizen, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Some other amendments to cut SNAP will be considered on the Senate floor. Another Sessions amendment (SA 2174) would limit a policy that has reduced the paperwork burden of applying for SNAP benefits. Now, households applying for SNAP who have previously qualified for cash or non-cash TANF benefits or certain other assistance programs are deemed eligible for SNAP without having to supply all their eligibility documentation all over again. This Sessions amendment would limit this streamlined approach (called “categorical eligibility”) to those receiving TANF cash assistance. Low-income working families now qualifying for SNAP because they receive only non-cash child care or transportation assistance from TANF will now have to jump through more documentation “hoops.” This restriction would cause an estimated 2-3 million people to lose SNAP benefits, and would result in 280,000 children losing free school meals.
Two amendments to eliminate incentive payments to states under SNAP will get Senate floor time: Another Sessions amendment (SA 2172) would end the $48 million in annual payments, which have been effective at improving state approaches to reach more people in need who qualify for SNAP benefits. A Boozman (R-AR) amendment (SA 2360) also eliminates the incentive payments, but in FY 2013 alone takes $43 million that would have been spent on these payments and uses it instead to fund emergency food aid for food banks (through TEFAP, The Emergency Food Assistance Program). Feeding America, which provides food to food banks nationwide and is struggling to meet growing need, opposes this amendment, saying “…these investments must not come at the expense of SNAP.”
In contrast to these cuts, a Nelson amendment (SA 2243) would maintain SNAP’s effectiveness by requiring states to reinvest performance bonuses they receive in their SNAP programs.
Once action on all the amendments is completed and the full farm bill is approved in the Senate, the House will have to act and differences between the two bodies resolved before a bill can become law. The Senate’s agreement to move forward signals that the farm bill is one area where both parties see a need to get results before the election.