Congressional Democrats are stretching out the latest round of coronavirus stimulus negotiations by demanding substantial, potentially permanent, changes to the food stamp program.
Party leaders have made boosting payments from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) into "one of the sticking points during this round of negotiations," a House GOP aide told the Washington Free Beacon. They've also floated the defunding of widely popular work reforms—a permanent cut that would extend beyond the coronavirus pandemic.
Some congressional Republicans have expressed an openness to a SNAP boost—potentially trading it for a cut to the emergency federal unemployment insurance supplementation—but are wary, suggesting that the added spending may be unnecessary and could be a useful political cudgel for Democrats down the road.
The resultant haggling has been one of the major barriers to a deal on further coronavirus stimulus, negotiations over which have now dragged on past the end of federal unemployment support and a moratorium on evictions, potentially forcing White House action to forestall a national homelessness crisis.
Democrats have been pushing for an expansion to SNAP since May, when it was included in their preemptory $3.5 trillion stimulus proposal. The caucus's primary goal is to increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent per household, as well as raise the minimum monthly benefit from $16 to $30.
That increase would far exceed recent supermarket inflation. According to the Department of Agriculture, food prices have climbed during the pandemic, but only by about 5 percent between June 2019 and June 2020.
The Democrats' original bill, the HEROES Act, also contained language that would have terminated major work requirements imposed by the Trump administration—rules imposed only after Democrats defeated Republican efforts to include them in the FY 2019 farm bill. The bill's full SNAP provision would cost roughly $35 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Democratic leadership has been vehement that an expanded SNAP benefit is urgently needed to combat rising food insecurity during the current recession. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), ranking minority member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has gone so far as to insist that she would "object to anything else being done in the agriculture space if we do not get a basic increase in SNAP," meaning blocking key aid to America's farmers.
Republicans have expressed some willingness to compromise on the issue, with Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) telling agricultural news sources that he could back an expansion of nutrition assistance as long as it did not draw down other agriculture money. Other farm state Republicans have signaled similar openness.
At the same time, no added funding for SNAP is included in the Republicans' $1 trillion counterproposal, the HEALS Act. And many on the Republican side feel that expanded support for schoolchildren and the $15 billion in appropriations made available under the CARES Act stimulus—which ensures SNAP benefits can be paid out to the 6 million new users added between February and April—is enough.
"SNAP is working as intended, providing food aid to anyone who qualifies," the GOP aide said. "Democrats are using SNAP as a distraction from securing a deal that will help millions of Americans through this pandemic."
Some of that intransigence may be fear that a temporary SNAP expansion would be used as a political cudgel against Republicans. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, meant to counteract the Great Recession, temporarily boosted benefits by 14 percent. But when Republicans moved to sunset the bill in 2013, the left was outraged, attacking the cuts for increasing hardship in SNAP households.
In the meantime, congressional negotiations over the fifth round of coronavirus stimulus remain stalled, with no clear resolution in sight even after several weeks of discussion. President Donald Trump has threatened to act unilaterally if Congress does not reach an agreement, enacting a federal payroll tax holiday and extending the eviction moratorium by executive order.