Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spent the morning and part of the afternoon testifying before the House Agriculture Committee. Committee Chair GT Thompson, R-Penn., said his appearance came at a critical time as debate over a new farm bill heats up.
As expected, much of the conversation turned to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, with opinions diverging along party lines.
Rep. Austin Scott, R- Ga., noted that less than 12% of farm bill spending currently goes to commodity programs and crop insurance, while more than 80% is allocated to SNAP. In response to a question regarding those percentages, Vilsack said he supported a strong commitment to nutrition and food security. He noted that SNAP spending puts money back into farmers’ pockets while also helping to create more jobs. The Secretary added that USDA can also take other steps to provide producers assistance, touting the Biden Administration's smart agriculture commodity partnerships.
Several Democrats decried a bill proposed by Rep. Dusty Johnson, D- S.D., which would place more stringent eligibility requirements on SNAP. Rep. Jim McGovern, D- Mass, brought up a study that concluded the additional work requirements called for in the bill would not lead to higher employment. Vilsack also noted that the vast majority of those that would be affected by the bill are adults without kids who are dealing with homelessness.
“You know, it’s just really too bad that we want to penalize people for being poor,” Rep. Alma Adams, D- N.C. said while discussing SNAP.
Johnson defended his bill, saying similar proposals in the past had received bipartisan support.
“The culture of dependence must be replaced with a culture of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility,” he said. “And the culture of permanence must no longer be a way of life.”
Another contentious issue that came up repeatedly was the number of illegal immigrants receiving SNAP benefits. Vilsack conceded that some people classified as illegal may receive benefits. However, they represent a tiny percentage of the overall program.
There were multiple spirited debates over who exactly is considered “legal.” While illegal immigrants are ineligible for SNAP benefits, those who have legally filed for asylum in the United States are eligible. As are all children born in the U.S., regardless of their parent’s legal status. This distinction did not sway SNAP’s Republican critics who seem intent on securing additional cutbacks to the program.
Rep. Barry Moore, R-Ala., suggested that up to five million of the country’s 41 million SNAP recipients were asylum seekers. Vilsack called that number absurd. After being interrupted several times, the normally cool-headed Secretary fired back with his own question to Moore.
“What do you think about the fact that there are working men and women with children who require SNAP because they’re working for $7.50 an hour?” he said. “Do you think we should increase the minimum wage?”
Moore dismissed the suggestion but offered no alternative plan. Instead, he pivoted to an oft-repeated analogy about nobody left to pull the wagon if everyone is riding. Like most of the five-hour hearing, there were plenty of soundbites, but not much new to say.