The House killed a five-year farm bill on Thursday afternoon after Republicans passed an amendment that would have replicated the failures of Clinton-era welfare reform in the food stamps program. The bill was already facing steep odds after the White House issued a veto threat and conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity began whipping GOP votes against the measure, and the final amendment Republicans tacked onto the bill chased away the Democratic votes needed for passage.
The amendment in question, introduced by Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL), would have allowed states to introduce work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) explained on the floor after the bill had been defeated, in a discussion with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA):
The committee passed out a bipartisan bill. Lot of Democrats voted for that bill. The problem, of course, is that 62 republicans voted against the bill as it was amended notwithstanding the fact they voted for the last amendment that was adopted which we think was a draconian amendment that would have hurt the poorest citizens in our country very badly. So we turned a bipartisan bill into a partisan bill. … 58 Republicans voted for Southerland that then turned around and voted against the bill, the very reforms you’re talking about. So don’t blame Democrats for the loss today.
Cantor responded by claiming the amendment simply mirrored the “unequivocal success” of welfare reform in the 1990s for a program that’s “in desperate need” of reforms to combat fraud and abuse. But SNAP has a lower error rate than farm subsidy programs, and at just one percent, its outright fraud rate is among the lowest for any federal program. And calling welfare reform an “unequivocal success” only makes sense if the goal was to destroy the program’s ability to address child poverty.
Conservatives celebrate the work requirements of the 1990s as a grand success, but the reality of those reforms is much uglier. While things looked great during the Clinton-era economic boom, the program proved utterly unable to respond to the jump in poverty that came with the Great Recession. As Melissa Boteach, director of the Center for American Progress’ antipoverty work, explained last summer, “several states actually decreased their caseload as poverty rates rose each year. And today, only about 27 percent of poor families with children can access the program as opposed to the two-thirds of poor families with children that did in 1996.”
Democrats made their opposition to duplicating welfare reform’s failures in the food stamp program clear during floor debate. The failure of the farm bill likely means a second consecutive one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill, which will avert devastating SNAP cuts and egregious increases to agricultural subsidies that primarily benefit factory farms.