December 21, 2016

Post-Election Federal Policy Update - December 2016

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The surprising results of the 2016 election cycle have sent shock waves through the political world, leading advocates and interest groups scrambling to comprehend and plan for the new reality ahead.  The implications for federal anti-hunger policies are chilling, with evidence of a more difficult political environment already playing out in the recently concluded Lame Duck session of Congress.

MAZON wanted to outline in broad strokes the challenges we anticipate confronting ahead: 

Child Nutrition Reauthorization

Despite concerted efforts over the past two years by the Senate Agriculture Committee to pass a bipartisan Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill that enjoyed broad support, we were disappointed to learn that the bill would not advance in the Lame Duck session of Congress that concluded last week.  The CNR bill that passed unanimously through the Senate Agriculture Committee wasn’t a perfect bill, but it offered reasonable compromises that would have made helpful improvements that would better address gaps in child nutrition, including significant advancements in summer feeding programs.  The House of Representatives took a very different approach in its partisan CNR bill that included harmful changes and cuts that would have rolled back progress made in our national child feeding programs. 

The results of the election lessened the chance for any type of compromise between the two versions of the bill and doomed Child Nutrition Reauthorization to be kicked down the road.  Most likely, CNR will not be taken up for at least a couple of years, following the conclusion of the next Farm Bill process that is soon to start in earnest with the new Congress.  Temporary extensions of current child nutrition programs will likely be passed annually by Congress to ensure that service delivery continues.  However, the opportunities for improvements will be delayed and child nutrition programs may be subject to harmful policy riders during the annual appropriations process.

Below are statements about the failure to advance CNR legislation from Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) that offer some helpful insights into their frustrations and the political dynamics. 

From Senator Roberts: “Though our committee passed a good, bipartisan bill — something no one said we could do — it wasn’t enough for some. I’m proud to say the Agriculture Committee conducted this reauthorization process in an open and transparent manner that listened to all stakeholders, including schoolchildren. We wrote a well-balanced bill that increased program integrity, flexibility, efficiency, and effectiveness. Since that bill was passed by our committee, we have been working to find an agreement with our colleagues in the House and the minority members of the Senate who halted the bill’s progress. In the end, we were not able to reach a bipartisan, bicameral compromise. It is unfortunate that certain parochial interests and the desire for issues rather than solutions were put ahead of the wellbeing of vulnerable and at-risk populations and the need for reform.” 

“This is a lost opportunity to help hungry children and struggling schools. In addition, these programs will be vulnerable to attack without a reduction in the current error rates. As chairman of the committee, I remain committed to continuing to look for ways to increase integrity within the program and to provide flexibility to local school and summer meal program operators.”

From Senator Stabenow: “I am very disappointed that after over two years of working on reauthorizing important child nutrition legislation, we were unable to reach a final agreement between the House and Senate. The bipartisan agreement we passed unanimously out of committee in January included important, commonsense changes that would have provided flexibility to schools while expanding critical nutrition access for children through summer meals, WIC [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children] and day care meals. I will continue to work with Chairman Roberts and members of our committee to protect and expand access to healthy meals for all children in the next Congress.” 

During the debate over the bill, Senator Stabenow noted that it would be better not to pass a bill than to pass a bill that diminished the healthier school meal rules established under the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. 

House Agriculture Committee Report on SNAP

Also during the Lame Duck session of Congress, the House Agriculture Committee released its report of findings gathered during the course of 16 hearings on SNAP conducted over the past 2 years.  It should be noted that the report was produced by the Republican leadership of the committee and reflects the orientation of the series of hearings that was tightly controlled by the majority Members and staff. Read the report here: Past, Present, & Future of SNAP.

While the report is a balanced reflection of the hearings and information shared by witnesses (including testimony by Abby J. Leibman, MAZON’s President & CEO, on military and veteran food insecurity from the January 2016 hearing, which was featured in the report) and the report itself doesn’t make the recommendation to block grant or make harmful cuts to SNAP (the report actually doesn’t make any policy recommendations), Chairman Conaway has not indicated that he would oppose such changes to SNAP.  So though there is nothing damaging in this report and it helpfully reaffirmed the effectiveness of SNAP in providing a critical nutrition safety net for millions of low-income Americans, there are reasons for concern about attempts ahead to make drastic and harmful cuts to SNAP. 

The statement made by Secretary Vilsack on the report highlighted the many ways in which SNAP effectively responds to the challenges of hunger in this country and offered a stern warning to those who would seek to make harmful changes to the program: "We need to do all we can to protect and strengthen the program so it can continue effectively serving American families in need… Proposals to convert SNAP into a block grant are misguided and would mean the program could no longer respond to economic conditions and serve all eligible Americans without drastically reducing benefits. As Congress begins working on the 2018 Farm Bill, they must protect SNAP and resist pressure to weaken the program by turning it into an ineffective block grant."

Secretary Vilsack mentioned the 2018 Farm Bill in his statement, which would normally be the legislative vehicle for reauthorizing and making adjustments to the SNAP program.  However, there are worrying signals that Congressional Republicans are looking to target SNAP as part of proposed budget reconciliation legislation, before the next Farm Bill happens.

Gutting SNAP in Budget Reconciliation

The playbook for making Draconian changes to SNAP have been an open secret – for years House Speaker Paul Ryan included proposals to transform SNAP into a limited block grant to states and limit funding as part of the annual budget resolutions he prepared when he was Chair of the House Budget Committee.  Ryan’s proposed reforms for SNAP now figure into his “Poverty, Opportunity, and Upward Mobility” report that is part of his A Better Way platform.  He has more recently changed the language but not the substance of his proposal, now calling for SNAP to be converted to an “Opportunity Grant” to states rather than a block grant.  Informing Speaker Ryan’s agenda are a desire to achieve fiscal savings to pay for other priorities of his (mainly debt and deficit reduction and increased defense spending) through massive entitlement reform, an ideological belief in the principle of limited government, and a misguided notion that the nation’s anti-poverty policies have been a failure based upon manipulative use of evidence.

In past years, no policy changes occurred as a result of the harmful proposals for SNAP and other safety net programs made in the House budget resolutions.  Those efforts were blocked by the threat of a veto by

President Obama and limited interest in taking up a futile fight in the Senate, with only a narrow Republican majority.

However, the results of the 2016 elections have radically changed the political playing field.  Though Republicans hold an even smaller majority in the Senate, a procedural maneuver known as budget reconciliation circumvents the ability to block legislation in the Senate by a filibuster and provides an opportunity to make policy changes with a simple majority.  With President-Elect Trump soon to take office, Republican leaders have been eyeing strategies to use budget reconciliation procedures to make sweeping policy reforms, including the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act and structural changes to Medicare, Medicaid, and SNAP.  The rules and politics around budget reconciliation are complex – only two budget reconciliation bills can be proposed in a given Congress – and it isn’t yet certain whether SNAP reforms will be included in a bill.  Based on the content of past budget resolutions, statements made by Speaker Ryan and other Republican Congressional leaders, and indicators from conservative think tanks and media outlets (for example: Time for a Fresh Look at SNAP), there is great reason to be concerned and to prepare for a serious fight to protect SNAP.  

In making the case for SNAP as an effective strategy to reduce hunger and poverty and warn about the dangers of block granting the program, it will be helpful to call attention to lessons learned by the failures of the 1996 welfare reform law. Peter Germanis, a conservative who formerly worked on welfare issues for the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses, has written passionately about the devastating impact of transforming welfare into the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant (see Making “Welfare Reform” Great Again: Recommendations for President-Elect Donald J. Trump). Germanis suggests that to make long-term reductions in our nation’s poverty and food insecurity rates, we should not follow the examples of welfare reform.  His suggestions include that: SNAP should not be transformed into a block grant; opportunities for state flexibility with accountability should be explored; the measure of success is actually reducing poverty and not just cutting caseloads; it is best to consider realistic and reasonable work requirements based on research; and policy decisions should be guided by evidence and not ideology.  Here are two helpful articles that articulate why block-granting SNAP would be so harmful: The Republican Party’s Strategy to Ignore Poverty and Block granting SNAP (food stamps) would break a crucial anti-poverty program

Unknowns of a Trump Administration

President-Elect Trump has not offered many specific policy statements related to hunger and poverty issues.  It remains to be seen the orientation of his Administration on these issues and the tone that is set by his nominee to be Secretary of Agriculture.  To the degree that advocates can help shape his Administration’s thinking about SNAP, it is worth trying in order to try to create some distance from the priorities of Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican Congressional leadership. 

Our work in the immediate future will be focused on trying to head off and potentially fight against proposals to make drastic and harmful changes to SNAP as part of the budget reconciliation process.  Longer-term we may revisit some of these same challenges in the context of the Farm Bill, though there are different political dynamics at work in that process that may change the nature of threats, the strategies to consider, and the opportunity for different partnerships.  Agricultural and nutrition groups have begun conversations about working together to advocate for a strong Farm Bill that keeps together farming and anti-hunger interests.  It is not yet clear if the agriculture groups will be willing to oppose efforts to make changes to SNAP in the budget reconciliation process.  Exploring new partnerships and different voices from outside of the anti-hunger movement will certainly be important to better the chances that our messages get heard in this new political environment.

MAZON will continue to work on our proactive agenda, including addressing food insecurity challenges for currently serving military families, veterans, vulnerable seniors (including older members of the LGBT community), and communities in Indian Country.  As legislative opportunities and openings for bipartisan cooperation in any of these areas present themselves, MAZON will actively explore and pursue them.

However, given the very real threats looming due to the new political outlook, our work is cut out for us to be vigorous defenders of SNAP.  We look forward to your active partnership in the critical work we have ahead of us.