Time to take a bite out of food stamps?

By Mary Clare Jalonick

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Aug. 2 2013 9:17 a.m. MDT

But many lawmakers say fraud is still costing taxpayers too much. Some people lie about their income, apply for benefits in multiple states or fail to quit the program when their earnings go up. Recipients must tell their state agency within 10 days if their income goes over the limit.

Some stores illegally accept food stamps to pay for other merchandise, even beer or electronics, or give out cash at a cut rate in exchange for phony food purchases, which are then reimbursed by the government.

FOOD AND FARMS

In Congress, it's a marriage of convenience.

Food stamp policy has been packaged in the same bill with farm subsidies and other agricultural programs since the 1970s. It was a canny way of assuring that urban lawmakers who wanted the poverty program would vote for farm spending. That worked until this year, when conservatives balked at the skyrocketing cost of food stamps.

In June, a farm bill that included food stamps was defeated in the Republican-led House because conservative members felt it didn't cut the program deeply enough.

In response, GOP leaders stripped food stamps out of the farm bill and tried again. That version narrowly passed the House on July 11, leaving food stamps in limbo.

Food stamps remain in the farm bill passed by the Senate. That bill made only a half-percent cut to food stamps and the Democratic Senate will be reluctant to cut more deeply or to evict the poverty program from its home in the farm bill.

The House and Senate versions must be reconciled before the five-year farm bill can become law.

WHAT NOW?

The current farm and food law expires in September.

If there's no agreement between the House and Senate on what to do about food stamps, Congress could vote to extend the law as it is, at the expense of many planned updates to agricultural policy.

Meanwhile, House Republican leaders say they plan to advance a separate bill to cut food stamps as early as next month. Their plan would find savings by tightening eligibility standards and imposing new work requirements. It also may require drug testing and bar convicted murderers, rapists and pedophiles from receiving food stamps.

But Democratic senators and Obama oppose substantial reductions to food stamps and likely would block them from becoming law.

Even if the Senate goes along with the House bid to remove food stamps from the farm bill, SNAP benefits would still be available for now.

While farm bills set food stamp policy, the money is paid out through annual appropriations bills that so far have left benefits intact.

But the appropriations process could be another opportunity for lawmakers determined to pluck savings from food stamps.

Follow Connie Cass on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ConnieCass. Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mcjalonick

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