Speaker Decries Federal Programs That Many Back Home Count On (Bloomberg Government)
This article originally appeared in Bloomberg Government on November 13, 2023.
Speaker Mike Johnson, as many conservatives, has long been critical of the size of the federal workforce and Washington spending on anti-poverty programs.
At the same time, his largely rural Louisiana district has benefited greatly from such federal largesse, including a higher rate of food stamp participation and percentage of federal workers than the country at large.
As the new House leader, Johnson will be one of the major players shaping federal spending, as well as policy decisions such as the reauthorization of farm programs.
Johnson and fellow Republicans are trying to advance appropriations measures for the current fiscal year that call for significant funding reductions cuts. They’re also fashioning a stopgap measure to keep the government open while they negotiate sharp differences with the Senate and the White House on money and policy.
Johnson’s district is poorer than most in the country, with a median household income of $48,618, compared to $55,416 statewide and $74,755 nationally. As a result, his constituents rely more heavily on federal programs and could be impacted by drastic cuts in aid and a federal shutdown.
About a fifth of households in Johnson’s district receive SNAP benefits — formerly known as food stamps — which ranks among the top 50 highest rates of all congressional districts, US Census data show. An estimated 12.4% of all US households participate in the program.
Yet in 2018, Johnson called the country’s largest source of food aid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, “our nation’s most broken and bloated welfare program” and has supported cuts to domestic spending over his seven years in Congress. His district would see an outsized impact from changes to agency spending or nutrition policy, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis of federal data.
The district is home to two military installations: Barksdale Air Force Base and Fort Polk Joint Readiness and Training Center. Of the civilian employed population in the district, 3.7% works for the federal government, including workers on the military bases, according to Census data. The national average of federal workers in congressional districts is 2.7%.
Johnson’s criticisms of SNAP, which provides food money for an average of more than 40 million Americans, comes as lawmakers work to reauthorize the five-year farm bill. More than 80% of the trillion-dollar legislation expiring this year authorizes nutrition programs, with the bulk of money going to the food program.
Republicans have over the years sought to make it harder to qualify for the program and secured some tighter work requirements under the debt ceiling deal that then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) negotiated with the president earlier this year.
Johnson supported the debt ceiling bill and praised its inclusion of stricter SNAP work rules.
“Among other things, it imposes sensible work requirements for welfare programs, streamlines the broken permitting process that delays important projects and increases taxpayer costs, and enacts caps to cut more than $2 trillion in federal spending,” Johnson said in a statement at the time.
Johnson’s criticism of federal welfare programs hasn’t hurt him with most voters in his deep red district where he was unopposed in 2022 and where Donald Trump received 61% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election.
“It’s a district with a lot of church-goers, a strong Christian conservative district that is very much in line with the speaker on a lot of social issues,” said Louisiana GOP political analyst Jeff Crouere. “And certainly I think people like the fact that he’s a family man, he’s not bashful about talking about his faith.”
He said working-class voters in Louisiana’s fourth district are impacted by high inflation, so criticisms of overspending on government programs resonate there.
The district’s poorest constituents also often don’t engage with their congressional representatives because they’re working long hours and struggling to make ends meet, said Boise State University Professor Charles Hunt — so SNAP recipients may not be the most politically involved members of Johnson’s district.
Advocates for expanded nutrition aid say they’re concerned by how frequently and passionately Johnson has spoken about the food subsidies in the past.
“The centrality of this to the speaker is something that is new in my experience,” said Abby Leibman, president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. “This is another example of somebody who has a position that is relatively extreme and is not troubled by the way in which this will affect the people who sent him to Congress,” she added.
Johnson’s office did not respond to a request for comment on his plans for the farm bill.
Lawmakers drafting the farm bill are resisting nutrition cuts in the bill, contending that the debt ceiling deal’s changes are sufficient for now. Hard-right members of the conference have called for cuts, though Republican leadership has largely stayed out of the public conversation around the program.
“I don’t see a need to do any significant changes under the nutrition title,” said House Agriculture Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.). “I would hope the extreme politics would stay out of the farm bill.”
Johnson’s calls for cuts to government agencies would impact federal workers across the country, but he’s supported increases to military funding — which would impact installations like the ones in his district.
The speaker used to serve on the Armed Services Committee, and he’s supported National Defense Authorization Acts throughout his time in Congress. He’s supported multiple bills on veterans’ benefits, but voted against the PACT Act (Public Law 117-168) that provided aid for veterans who were exposed to burn pits.
His district’s 11,337 federal workers would likely feel the impact of a government shutdown if Congress is unable to pass a spending bill past next week. Republicans are struggling to coalesce around a a stopgap when the current funding expires on Nov. 17.
House Republicans are working “earnestly” on a stopgap bill and “will be revealing what our plan is in short order,” Johnson said earlier this week. “We want to avoid a shutdown.”