WASHINGTON — House Republicans are laying the groundwork for a fresh effort to overhaul the food stamp program during Donald Trump’s presidency, with the possibility of new work and eligibility requirements for millions of people.
The GOP majority on the House Agriculture Committee released a two-year review of the program on Wednesday that stops short of making specific policy recommendations, but hints at areas where Republicans could focus: strengthening work requirements and perhaps issuing new ones, tightening some eligibility requirements or providing new incentives to encourage food stamp recipients to buy healthier foods.
“There’s nothing off the table when it comes to looking at solutions around these areas where we think improvements need to be made,” the committee chairman, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
He noted there is nothing in the review that suggests “gutting” or getting rid of the program, which he said serves a critical mission.
The food stamp program, called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) now serves about 43.6 million people and cost $74 billion in 2015. Participation in the program rose sharply as the country suffered a recession. The program now costs roughly twice what it did in 2008.
The report, based on 16 hearings by the committee, recommends better enforcement of some SNAP work programs in certain states, and finds that 42 states use broad eligibility standards that some Republicans have criticized as too loose. It encourages more incentives to get people to buy healthy food with their food stamp dollars, addressing criticism that recipients use public money for junk foods. The report cites Agriculture Department data showing that 10 percent of foods typically purchased by SNAP households are sweetened beverages.
It’s unclear how or when an overhaul could happen.
Food stamp policy is included in a wide-ranging farm bill every five years; the next one is due in 2018. It also could be part of a larger effort headed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to tackle a welfare or entitlement overhaul, if that should happen in the next Congress.
Still, food stamp changes always have been a hard sell in Congress.
Democrats almost unilaterally oppose any changes. Some Republicans from poorer districts are also wary. The 1996 welfare law added some new work requirements, but Congress declined to convert federal food stamp dollars into block grants for the states, a move that would cut spending for the program.
In 2013, House Republican leaders tried to cut the program by 5 percent annually by passing broad work requirements as part of the last farm bill. The House bill also included drug testing for recipients.
The then-Democratic Senate balked, though, and the final bill included a much smaller cut and no allowances for drug testing.
Conaway said he’s open to any of those policies, but suggested that block granting the program — a past priority for Ryan — or drug testing recipients are not his priorities.
“We don’t want to be helping folks on drugs, but then again, folks on drugs have children,” Conaway said.
On block grants, Conaway said it’s not off the table, but not a priority.
He said the report should help lawmakers be “not as knee-jerk reactionary as they have been in the past.” The 2013 effort didn’t resonate well, he has said, because Republicans didn’t spell out why it was necessary.
Part of the calculation will be what Ryan proposes. He strongly supported block granting food stamps as part of his larger plans for welfare reform when he was chairman of the House Budget Committee. But an agenda he released this year after becoming speaker was vaguer, only suggesting that some food aid programs could be consolidated.
As for Trump, he’s said little about what he’d want to do with the program. But he has frequently mentioned how the rolls have increased since President Barack Obama took office.
GOP Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, was heavily involved in the 1996 welfare overhaul. He has said his committee will review the food stamp program, but hasn’t made any specific proposals.
He says block grants would face significant opposition in the Senate, and he’s not sure whether new work requirements would pass muster, either.
“To be determined,” he said.