White House to Scott Walker: Trump can’t just let you drug test the hungry

An Obama administration official made it clear that it would take an act of Congress.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) gives his state of the state address on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andy Manis
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) gives his state of the state address on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andy Manis

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has been trying for some time now to find a way to drug test those who need government assistance to afford food.

He signed a measure two years ago that would institute tests for the state’s food stamp program and a number of other programs that serve the poor. But states don’t have the authority to make such changes to the program, leading Walker to sue the federal government to allow him to move forward.

He seemed to gain new optimism, however, about his chances of success after Donald Trump was elected president. In December, he sent a public appeal to Trump asking him to act quickly and give his state the necessary authority. “We want your help as soon as possible,” he wrote in a letter. “We…are optimistic your administration will give states like Wisconsin the flexibility to provide the accountability the taxpayers demand.”

But this week, an Obama administration official made it clear that even if Trump were to support Walker’s request, he can’t do it on his own. Drug testing food stamp recipients violates current law, Kevin Concannon, undersecretary at the federal Food and Nutrition Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said in an interview with Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, and it would require Congressional action to change that fact.

“The law clearly does not allow it,” he said.

After Scott Walker’s office sent a request to the USDA to implement the policy, Concannon said, “We consulted the legal counsels here and the law absolutely does not allow it.”

The federal government has said as much before. In 2014, after Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed a law that would have drug tested food stamp applicants the state suspected were using drugs, the USDA sent him a letter warning him that it wasn’t allowed.

“Requiring SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps] applicants and recipients to pass a drug test in order to receive benefits would constitute an additional condition of eligibility, and therefore, is not allowable under law,” regional USDA administrator Robin Bailey wrote at the time.

Walker hasn’t been fazed by these roadblocks, however. In his state of the state speech on Tuesday, he promised, “In 2017, we are going to push the federal government to allow Wisconsin to go even further” to get people to pass a drug test.

Walker has also made previous appeals to Congress to pass a bill that would give him the authority to implement drug tests. But even though a member of Congress did introduce such a measure, it didn’t go anywhere.

While states can’t implement drug tests for food stamps on their own, they can enact such measures for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash welfare program, and 10 have already done so. But the evidence from these states shows that they aren’t effective and just end up costing taxpayer money. These states have so far spent a collective $2 million to administer the tests, yet they have uncovered a very small share of positive results. In 2015, two states came up with exactly zero.