By Ronnie Ellis
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
FRANKFORT — The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed along party lines a measure Thursday night slashing food stamp spending by $40 billion.
The bill passed 217-210, with two Democrats voting for the bill and one Republican voting against it. All five of Kentucky’s Republican congressmen voted for the measure; Democrat John Yarmuth voted no.
Among those 217 aye votes was Kentucky’s 5th District Congressman Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee who represents the second poorest congressional district in the country. Just last month, Rogers told CNHI, “I’m going to protect that program, whatever it takes.”
Rogers released a statement Thursday night shortly after the vote saying the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) “desperately needs reform and restructuring,” but promising the House bill won’t deny the truly needy and eligible residents of his district food stamps.
The House bill still spends more than $700 billion over 10 years but would cut spending by $40 billion over the same period while requiring “able-bodied adults” under 50 with no dependents to find a job or enroll in training programs to receive benefits while limiting those benefits to a period of three months.
According to a spokeswoman for Rogers, those changes close loopholes in eligibility established by the economic stimulus program which has expired and also restore work requirements waived by the Obama administration during the height of the recession.
Danielle Smoot said the changes represent only about a 5 percent cut in total program benefits. She said Rogers is “confident that those in his district who really need assistance will still get it.”
But Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Economic Policy Center, said the measure will cut off food assistance to 88,000 “very low income Kentuckians” who can’t find work. Bailey said there are three unemployed people for every available job, making it virtually impossible for many food stamp recipients to find jobs.
Bailey said the relaxed eligibility standards were a response to unusually high unemployment caused by the recession and have been utilized by several states where unemployment is especially high. “It’s not a loophole,” Bailey said. “It’s working as it was supposed to work.”
He said the cuts will be particularly tough on eastern Kentucky and Rogers’ district, where he said 29 percent of households receive food stamps. In Kentucky about 20 percent of the population — 876,000 people — receives food stamps.
According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the measure will remove about 4 million from the program nationally next year and about 3 million each year after that. The CBO estimates if the program were left unchanged, bout 14 million would leave the SNAP rolls over the next decade as the economy improves.
But Smoot, the spokeswoman for Rogers, said by voting for the bill, Rogers was voting to “move the bill forward” so the differences between the competing measures could be ironed out in conference negotiations between the House and Senate.
Rogers previously told CNHI he has included funding for the SNAP program in the Agriculture Appropriations bill at levels only slightly less than originally requested by President Obama.
Friday, Smoot said Rogers’ support for the program hasn’t waned and his position remains the same as a month ago when he told CNHI he would do “whatever it takes” to protect the program.
“He remains fully committed to seeing the program continues to serve those that really do need assistance,” she said.