If you've been following the food stamp debate in Washington, you know it's about whether to cut food stamp benefits for the disadvantaged by $4 billion a year (the House proposal) or only $400 million a year (the Senate plan).
Here's what you may not know: By its pure inaction, Congress is about to impose a cut in food stamp benefits that beats both. Next week, on Nov. 1, benefits will be cut by $5 billion for this fiscal year alone.
That number may be hard to grasp, but here's what it means on the ground. It means a loss of 21 meals a month for a family of four on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (the formal name for food stamps). About 47 million Americans will be affected by the coming 15 percent reduction in benefits across the board.
Sounds like a crisis needing immediate relief, doesn't it? Not to our Congress.
"Congress would have to take action, and there's no pending legislation to do that," said Dorothy Rosenbaum, a SNAP expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Even if there were, time is obviously tight. The lawmakers came back to work only on Tuesday, having taken a long weekend to recover from their horrific workload during the, er, government shutdown. (Posturing for the TV cameras in front of the shuttered World War II Memorial takes a lot out of you, don't you know.) The coming benefit cut is the perverse result of the fiscal stimulus legislation of 2009, followed by a couple of other stimulus measures enacted later. The 2009 stimulus measure increased monthly food stamp benefits by about $20 to $25 per month as a spur to economic recovery. For an eligible family of four, the increase of just over $80 a month raised the maximum benefit to $668, from $584.
The idea was that the increase would fade away over time, as inflation increases brought the basic benefit up to that $668 level. The original estimate was that the increase would be completely eaten away by late 2014.
But Congress accelerated the sunset. In 2010, lawmakers moved up the expiration date to April 2014 to help pay for the Education Jobs Act, which raised federal funding for school districts to keep teachers on the job. Four months later, Congress moved up the expiration further, to this Oct. 31, to pay for the reauthorization of child nutrition programs. That's known as taking away with one hand what you give with the other, and it's where things stand today.
It bears repeating that the food stamp program provides the No. 1 opportunity for members of Congress to display their hypocritical side. We've documented at length the spectacle of conservative lawmakers voting to slash benefits, which amount to $1.40 per meal per day, while collecting millions of dollars in farm subsidies for themselves.
"Boondoggle" Doug LaMalfa, the GOP congressman from California's Central Valley, is our poster child for this; 11 percent of the residents of his home Butte County are served by SNAP. Californians will lose a total of $457 million in benefits because of the cut.